Observations from a French café up North in Sweden

March 2018 – Sunday afternoon in Luleå.

It would be a pretence to say I know anything about this Swedish town that I’ve arrived in, other that it’s the location from where I am getting the Stockholm train. I am anxious about taking the overnight train – my first alone – and acutely aware that outside the temperature is well below freezing.

I arrive onboard a double decker bus, stocked with coffee, tea and bottled water for a price. The lady who comes around offering to sell me these things looks at me with a comforting motherly air. I’ve wrapped myself in my scarfs, kicked off my boots and had my e-book reader, cross-stitch and notebook lying on the seat beside me. There are other passengers today, which adds a little distraction, but also brings a sense of security. I was a whole lot less comfortable when I was riding across cold rural Finland in a bus as the driver’s only passenger. Especially with us having no common language.

From the border to Luleå the journey took us through small towns, tall forests of snow laden firs and along the edges of flat white lakes, whose cover of snow looked untouched by man. I had hoped to see the sea, but the route took us too far inland.

There’s a brand of bus here called ‘Busgods’.

Sunset in Luleå.

Other than dragging my suitcase through the snowy streets, and the gorgeous sunset that I witnessed chasing me over the hill to the railways station, my experience of Luleä is decidedly French.

Café Metropol has a warm inviting look to it, with its old-fashioned lamps glowing in the window, and although it was rather late for lunch but early for tea, I went inside to warm myself and eat a meal. There would be no evening meal for me, just a muffin, yogurt, bread roll and an apple picked up from a corner shop, which would have to last me the thirteen-hour overnight journey into Stockholm.

Normally I would feel disappointment at a café for using fake flowers on the tables, but since nothing seems to be growing outside, it’s much too cold, I’m surprisingly cheered by the colour. Five fake yellow sunflowers stand in the window, alongside a box of fake pink and purple tulips. Inside I do spot an orchid, not in flower, the rare authentic plant.

Tiny portraits look out of ornate frames, alongside old peculiar instruments which I cannot name made in an elegant pale wood. They are part of a collection of paintings, which represent a multitude of times and styles. No wall is left bare. Behind a metal bull (maybe there’s a Spanish influence too?) are stacked bottles of wine. Each wooden table top balances on a central, wrought iron leg. Wood is the material of choice, the bar is wooden, as are the floor and ceiling, although there’s a diversity of varnish which makes it look like it’s all been put together over time.

After serving me, it’s the post lunch sit down for the two chefs. They’re joined by two, dark-haired young girls who have been contentedly playing in their corner by the window and all four of them eat burgers. There’s a definite family comfort about the way they listen to one another and the way the girls loll against one of the men. I imagine their father.

I find my nerves softening.

I’m still there, still drinking my post-lunch coffee when a smartly dressed, and well wrapped up, teenage boy arrives for an interview. Of course, I don’t understand a word that’s said, they’re speaking Swedish, but they’re seated at the table in front of me, the boy with his back to me, and I see the nervousness in his posture and smile at his willingness to please. I imagine this as his first ever interview. One his mother has made him rehearse for. The chef is relaxed, patient, listening, and I develop the feeling that if the boy does get the job, he’s going to be in safe hands working here.

So much beautiful white snow!

The way books make me feel (and other tangents)

Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
Across the moor where I go to think. July 2017

On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.

My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.

Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.

“How do you feel today?”

“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”

Wild orchid
Wild orchid, Penistone Hill. July 2017

What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?

When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.

That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.

I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.

Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
Up the hill from the Bronte Parsonage. July 2017.

It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.

On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.

Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.

For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.

This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.

I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.

I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.

Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).

Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.

María takes control of her own story.  She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.  

Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.

Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.

*Or translator…

Sheep on Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
A watchful sheep on Penistone Hill. July 2017.

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother (part 2)

North York Moors, North Yorkshire
The stunning beauty of the North York Moors.

One of the challenges with yoga (other than the obvious physical challenge) is that it sometimes comes a bit too close to sounding like nonsense. It’s mostly the terminology that is used. Sometimes it’s not very western, and it’s not that of a scientific nature and so I become a little bit unnerved. I do have my reputation as a physics graduate consider. I am, I guess, sceptical of a lot of the phrases used, although I feel that this has as much to do with my lack of biology knowledge as much as my lack of Buddhist or Hindi terminology. I had to ask the mother where my kidneys were, and had no idea what a session of activating my kidney meridians was supposed to achieve. I still don’t.

Anyway, I was contemplating this as I sat on the sofa arm, balancing in that self-assured way that one does after hours of yoga, reading the peculiar titles of the books on the bookshelf. At this point I was wearing my third-eye chakra infused oil between my eyebrows because I’d been gifted it and had no idea what else I was supposed to do with it. I’ve got a multitude of chakras apparently, although I’ve no idea what or why they are. How the oil helps them, or me, I’ve no idea either. It smells like the upstairs of my nanna and grandad’s house did when I was a child.

Most of the rest of the group, there were sixteen of us participants, slowly made their way into the living room, placed themselves three to a sofa, found a beanbag, stood propped against the wall, or sat with upright-spines, cross-legged on the carpet. By this point everyone was hungry waiting for breakfast and in a cheerful chatty mood. The awkward silences of the first day had been replaced with an eagerness to speak and be heard.

The conversation paid a moment’s attention to the retreat owner, Edward. I hadn’t seen him and imagined him to be an older chap, small and bendy who looked like he’d live forever. The fifty-something year old women therefore surprised me with their enthusiasm for learning everything about him, little was known other than he would be willing to deal with spiders as 3am if anyone had a problem. Someone claimed to have a magazine article in their bedroom about him, and everyone wanted to see it. They also wanted to know more about the place itself, how it had come to be a sought-after retreat location, and what else went on there.

Our yoga teacher suggested Edward was a very dedicated man, going so far as to even leading silent retreats. Julie can still give you a massage, but she does so silently as not to break the practice. And then of course, all these women were discussing what would be difficult about a silent retreat and asking how silent exactly silent was. At this point, the chap (remember there were fifteen of us women and one chap) launched into sharing his knowledge. He’d shared a room once with someone who’d completed a ten-day silent meditation retreat somewhere down south. You can imagine the voices of the women, still wearing their patterned leggings and all in bare feet or socks, because shoes weren’t allowed in the house, trying to advertise themselves as the least capable of staying silent for ten days.

What is it with people saying that they can’t do things they’ve never actively tried?

Anyway, I turned around from the bookshelf. The Mother looked at me from across the room with one of those all-knowing looks and I looked back at her. I waited for a sensible pause in the conversation feeling that sitting smugly knowing the answers to their questions but not saying anything, especially when they were so curious, would not be fair.

“I’ve done it,” I said.

Cows in North Yorkshire.
Cows. To break up the monotany of the text.

The chap wanted to check that my silent retreat was the same super serious silent retreat that he was talking about. Initially I think he was sceptical. It was. How exactly, everyone seemed to want to know, do you stay silent? Can you write notes?

“You can’t write,” I said. “Or read.”

Their faces looked pained. I tried to explain that the peer pressure of being with so many other non-talking people really did help make the silence easy. Plus, you went in having agreed to the silence, including silence of eye contact.

“But,” I said, “The silence is easy, compared to sitting still.”

Luckily, a few minutes later, the gong sounded, summoning us to breakfast. We didn’t need much summoning. Gracefully and graciously everyone was on their feet and racing towards the dining-room. I was left worrying that everyone was now going to think of me as the weird one, wearing potpourri-scented third-eye chakra oil and doing strange, gender-segregated, vegan-eating, silent retreat.

Just before lunch I finally laid my eyes on the mysterious Edward. He came to give us a gong bath. Don’t worry, we were all fully dressed and most of us were wrapped in blankets too. I realised that he couldn’t have spent 20 years in Indian monasteries and couldn’t have spent time in a cave in Nepal, because he simply was not old enough.

And I suddenly realised why exactly the fifty-something year old women were so enamoured with him. In his shorts and t-shirt, I heard him described as ‘a bit of alright’.


Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother

North York Moors
Up in the wonders of the North York Moors.

I ache.

I had this grand illusion that on returning from a yoga retreat I would feel all relaxed and at ease. I don’t. I feel like I’ve been to the gym, except for that the muscles that ache seem to be super deep inside of me. Maybe it wasn’t the yoga at all, maybe it was the wonderful Julie and her wonderful hands massaging my body. I don’t know.

It was the Mother’s idea, this yoga retreat experience. She, unlike me, can just drop down to the ground and touch her toes (without bending her legs) at 7 o’clock in the morning. Which was a good thing for her as pre-breakfast yoga started at half seven, in the chapel. The chapel, with its bright white walls and spacious arched windows being the yoga studio for The Tree relaxation centre in the North Yorkshire Moors where we happened to be. Whilst it’s cupboards might now be stacked with yoga mats, meditation poofs and big comfy cushions – do not use if you’re trying to maintain a sense of awareness – it still does play a role within the Methodist community. They borrow it back occasionally for events like their harvest festival.

Due to the Mother, I was awake at half seven and in the chapel. She’d done her first session of yoga, that’s yoga even before the pre-breakfast yoga, in our twin bedroom whilst I slept. When I awoke and pulled back the curtains I was met with a view across the green valley and up to the delicate colours of the moors.

Ten minutes early to the chapel, we were the last to arrive. I tried to look awake and feel as energised and ready to go as my floral legging might have suggested, but their bright colours blended in with everyone else. My yoga companions were eager looking women who looked like half-seven was, for them, a lie in. We did a little breathing and for a moment I imagined I might be able to semi-sleep through the yoga – a bit like I sometimes do with the mother’s ‘over 50s DVD’, but it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case. We were on a mission to warm up and build an appetite before breakfast.

After breakfast – porridge, fruit, toast – was, as you might guess from a yoga retreat, more yoga. This was followed by a much-needed deep relaxation. It was one of those relaxations where you start by relaxing the crown of your head, your forehead, your face, your neck, shoulders and then fall asleep, waking up just in time for ankles and toes. I blame the big comfy cushion. If I snored, I wasn’t the only one.

Yoga Retreat
Read and be wise!

Lunch followed – soup, salads and cheese and biscuits – and another round of camomile tea, decaf green tea, decaf coffee, caffeinated coffee, decaf tea, caffeinated tea, etc. etc. Then there came the afternoon. It started with a short walk for the Mother and me. Then followed the dip in the hot tub, which was in a little cabin, with wide windows overlooking the moors, fairy lights twinkling in the ceiling. The clock on the wall which instead of numbers simply said ‘now’. As you might expect the retreat centre was one of those places with cute lines about happiness being more than just a destination, or there only being the present moment, hanging off nails and scribbled across walls in abundance.

Cake awaited us back inside the house. Homemade blueberry scones and a super light lemon cake which I may have had a second slice of (yes, we’ve picked up the recipe). I asked for a fork for my cake because it was one of those places where you felt comfortable sticking your head in through the kitchen door and speaking to one of the super friendly, highly talented chefs. Also, cake should be eaten with a fork. It’s proper.

Then came my appointment to visit Julie. She put me at ease within seconds, making me feel totally comfortable as I quickly briefed her on my tendency to have a panic attack if I’m uncomfortable with a touch, but she knew exactly what she was doing and made me feel safe. Quite a skill.

The next couple of hours I spent in an excessively relaxed daze, reading a few pages of my book and testing out the variety of herbal teas. Then it was dinner time. The kitchen produced a hearty vegetarian shepherd’s pie (we have the recipe for this too). I concentrated on staying upright and awake. The rest of the table chattered along merrily, comparing notes about their professions (either teaching or nursing) and, if they had them, their children. The children mentioned all appeared to be aged twenty-seven. Nurses and teachers, mothers of twenty-seven-year-old children obviously were the retreat’s target audience. I was the only twenty-seven-year-old daughter. There was one chap, but he knew a thing or two about yoga and was obviously used to going on retreats dominated by women.

These jolly ladies, peacefully stretched and thoroughly massaged, debated the merits of 80’s fashion and food and tried to convince me that I had missed out. I pointed out that there was something beneficial about not having to record your music off the radio onto a cassette tape, but they shook their heads and smiled. They bounced into discussing the wonders of angel delight. I stared at them in horror.

The evening finished with candle gazing. This involved us returning to the chapel, sitting on our mats and staring at a tealight whilst trying not to blink too much. Your eyes are supposed to water lots. The teacher had tissues at the ready. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be good for calming hay fever, but I couldn’t really say as I spent most of my time failing not to blink and therefore my eyes barely watered at all.

We walked back from chapel to retreat house, staring up at the stars that hung brightly above the open moors, before climbing into bed.

And all that was only Saturday.

Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

Travelling from Riga to Tallinn by train

Latvian railways
The Latvian countryside – taken on my phone from the train.

I’m on a train, the sort that’s likely to be modernised out of existence. The sort with a soothing chug, windows that don’t quite close and heaters that blow out warm air like my little travel hair-dryer used to before it went bang. It’s February. All around me people are layered up in thick winter coats and woollen scarves. The women are in heeled boots and have a classy, well-dressed look about them that reminds me of Northern Italy, but this is Latvia and outside it’s minus seven degrees celsius.

View from Latvian train
The reflection of the orange striped seats.

I strip off my coats and scarves and jumpers, feeling the odd one in the carriage because everyone else seems to be able to bear the heat. But maybe I’m the only one whose dragged their suitcase through the fine snow with a rucksack on her back. It’s a long journey ahead. I remove my boots and wiggle my toes in their multiple layers of sock. I’m over-dressed, but understandably so as yesterday the temperature was ten degrees lower. The colder-than-ice air, whipping through the crack at the edge of the window is a relief.

We arrive at a station and a sound reverberates through the train like that of an old-fashioned doorbell. Outside the fields are covered with an icy frost, that in places becomes a clean carpet of virgin snow. By the stations, across rows of abandoned track, the snow is trampled with heavy boots, their blue shadows are the only sure way of knowing where the roads begin. From the bank at the side of the railway they disappear between the trees.

The forest is everywhere around me. On both sides of the track for hour after hour it remains a constant companion. Trees with rich brown and orange bark stand straight and tall. Many are bare but for a crown of dark, evergreen needles. Occasionally spindly silver birches cluster between them. There are animal tracks in the snow.

When we pass a lone house, I spot what’s unmistakeably an outside toilet and a few outbuildings. At a small town, Sigulda, many of the train’s passengers drop down from the carriage to the platform. The platform reminds me of travelling through Slovakia with my sister and being amazed and bewildered to see the platforms only little higher than the track. Like the Slovakians, and unlike my sister and I, the Latvians disembark gracefully.

View from Latvian train
Latvian building taken through dirty train windows.

The docile towns appear in a state of semi-hibernation. But maybe that the illusion of quiet created by snow. The buildings are spaciously arranged. They’re steep rooved a bit like German houses, but naturally coloured. The more isolated houses are made of wood. The hours pass, but I don’t put in my earphones because there’s something precious about the moment that stops me.

We chug on. Losing passengers as we go further and further away from the capital and towards the Estonian border. And then, I glance around the carriage and realise that there are only two of us remaining. The woman a few rows down, faces me, but she can’t see me, she’s crying.

Her dark hair hangs loose, I know by the way her hair falls that she’s raked her hands through it many times this morning. I’ve seen that look in my mirror. She’s a mess, but she’s got style about her. Heeled boots accompany a tan winter coat which comes down to her knees. I suspect she knows her cheeks show mascara tears. She cared enough to put her make-up on this morning. She glares at her phone with tight drawn lips, a mixture of fear and fight. Her body is rigid. Then she is gone.

I stare out at the snow, looking through the trees for signs of deer, grateful.

Work, play and rest

Tortoises, Slow
Tortoises. Owned by a ninty-year-old Italian woman who invited me into her garden to photograph them.

I work, I play, and I rest.

Or at least, this is my noble goal. Many people would claim, I think, to do the above, yet, for all their good intentions, find themselves procrastinating their work, criticising themselves instead of playing, and worrying when they had intended resting. I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve noticed myself not doing things I would have done impulsively before.

When I’m working, I’m working solidly. My efforts are wholehearted. If I decide, for example, that I’m going to write, I write. I don’t sit staring at social media. I don’t faff around following some tangential thread through the internet. I don’t suddenly decide that I need to do something else, urgently and simultaneously. I love physical work too. It’s one of the reasons I have loved some of my travels so much. I’m content when I’m busy painting a wall or sanding the skirting boards. Living on a farm for a couple of months, where I was physically working every morning, felling trees, building log piles, caring for the animals, felt wonderful.

But we also had good food and laughed together.

It’s strange perhaps, but I’ve noticed that when I’m playing nowadays, I’m more likely to laugh. I’m a little harder to embarrass. I sing along to my music, without worrying too much about how I sound, or how I only know half the lyrics and have no idea what the familiar tune is. When I paint, I’m gentler with my expectations. I play games. Occasionally I immerse myself in a computer game, sometimes it’s social and board games. My Mother and I sit on the living room floor and play dominos. I cook playfully, experimenting and creating. Reading the rules and letting them loosely guide me. I smile more frequently because I feel at ease, not because I’m trying to make someone else comfortable. Maybe I’m just less uptight?

And then rest. Sleep is complex for me because it comes bundled with nightmares and tense dreams. I try to take my mornings slowly to give myself the opportunity to recover if my night-time thoughts have been rather tense. I am training myself to paint with oils, but to rest I might crayon in a colouring book. I read a lot, partially because of the love of reading, partly because it keeps me still and rests my defences. I read more thought provoking material to learn, but I also read entertaining lighter stuff too. When I rest I try not to be doing other things. Simplicity is my goal. Good music. An immersive story. Finding shapes in clouds. Sometimes I tell myself it’s okay just to sit quietly. Especially in company.

Whatever the change is, I’m grateful for it.

Hiding my truths within a fiction based on a truth

The Nile, Egypt
The Nile near Aswan.

At dinner last night* the father had all these questions about my novel. That’s my third novel for anyone who’s keeping count (probably only my father), which is a prequel to my second novel (which currently exists as two chapters – the first and the last – but was once 100,000 words long) and is nothing to do with my first novel which once had a youth orchestra play a piece composed for it. None of these novels is published of course. None of them have ever got to a point where anyone who isn’t my father might believe them finished.

This third novel is not quite like anything that I’ve written before.

It’s not like the first novel

The first novel was set in space. It was told through the eyes of a journalist because I was trying to get some space between me and my characters. I named my protagonist after a girl I’d disliked in primary school and made her a very reluctant hero. She spent the first half of the book trying not to be involved with the story line. The real main character was of course an intergalactic princess. My sister suggested that maybe she was too rebelious.

The father – my number one fan – read the book in tears on a transatlantic flight, and although he might well now deny it, had one critique. He said it lacked sex.

He was right

So much of human motivation stems from our need to have romantic relationships, or at least get a physical kick from being with someone. However, and this is quite a large however, sex is hard to write into a book at a stage in your life when you haven’t ever had a real boyfriend. And I don’t mean real as in not imaginary, I mean real in this context as someone you have a relationship with and don’t just label with the word because it’s convenient when it comes to surviving the hostile world of the school playground.

For the second book I came back down to Earth

I wrote it in my final year at university when I ought to have been mathematically modelling solar flares. It’s set in Ancient Egypt. My father read it of course. He loved it. He thought that I should quickly get it finished, published and make lots of money from it. He has great faith in my writing. (He’s an excellent father and amateur literary critic.) And at least that was my impression of his opinion. The sex, however, he said made him uncomfortable.

You really can’t win when you’re a daughter writing a book read by your father but I believe it serves him right for embarrassing me the first novel round.

So, the third book

I haven’t let my father read it. In fact, I have been avoiding writing it. When I’m writing a novel I get consumed by it. My mindneeds a huge amount of space to write, and it hasn’t exactly felt spacious recently.

It’s often the getting started that’s hard, and not because I have writer’s block – that thing is alien to me thank goodness – but because to write it I have to read it and to read it means I’m confronted by what I’ve written. And it’s not just a case of lacking self-confidence.

I’ve tended to pour myself into writing it at points over the last couple of years where my mind has desperately needed to expel thoughts and feelings but was too ashamed to put them straight into my diary. This does not lead to a tidy, structured novel, and restructuring and cutting has been an ordeal. That said, those horrible moments, now rewritten, make up the backbone of the novel I wanted to write  and proved uncuttable.

To write the third book I had to switch to the third person. I couldn’t write in the first person. I couldn’t put myself though such an agony. And all the things I wanted to write, I couldn’t have made happen to one character. I feel it’s much too much feeling to believe from one character, even if all the character’s feelings do in fact stem from me.

And the sex? Well. Not too surprisingly I’m not currently the biggest fan of sex. Although since it’s a book set in the royal courts in Ancient Egypt sex is hardly something I can just skip. I’m sure there were some asexual people in Ancient Egypt, but this isn’t a novel about them.

At dinner last night the father kept asking when he gets to read it

I read it myself at the beginning of this week and have been writing it obsessively ever since. He’s noticed and become excited that it may, finally, be finished. Meanwhile I keep wondering what he’s going to think of it all. I wince when I’m reading it, and I wrote it. I know what’s coming up.

But one of those cliche phrases points out that you should write what you know, and I’ve come to know things I would’t want to read. And yet maybe the reason I write this novel and these characters is because they can house much stuff that people shy away from, yet make it a bit more palatable. It’s a story about people keeping secrets and holding themselves in shame. It’s a book about not talking, not trusting, and the power of one human being over another.

It’s not autobiographical, yet it is a reflection of what I know.

And yet, all that ‘stuff’ is part of me. If it’s not seen, if these feeling aren’t recognised and accepted, then I’m not either. Which is why, eventually, I’ll have to let it be read.

 

*I wrote this post a week or so ago.

 

 

Do you write, and if so, why?

‘a study of a courageous young woman’

 

Catherine Oughtibridge
Photograph and paragraphs below copyright Kaisa Vänskä, used with permission.

Catherine

“My dear girl, when are you going to realise that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.”
-Aunt Frances, Practical Magic

Analytical, curious, determined, patient, courageous, a survivor. These are only a few of the words that can describe Catherine well. I met Catherine for the first time the winter of 2016, when I was travelling in Sicily. After only a few minutes we found ourselves sitting on a flush red sofa, munching on carob fruits and talking about similarities and differences between world religions. Thus started a friendship that has carried over the distance, time difference and different situations in life.

Regardless of being independent and confident, Catherine denotes unbelievable vulnerability. Catherine is a rape victim, and as a result of that, she struggles with things that I take for granted: like a sense of safety, setting boundaries, finding balance between expressing her feelings and not making people around her upset or uncomfortable, and accepting what has happened.

The exhibition started as a lighting exercise but developed into a study of a courageous young woman, who hasn’t ever been and won’t ever be normal. A woman, who despite adversity, has the courage to love, trusts in life and in people. A woman, who, in the whirlwind of her own life, still has time to listen to others and offer some hard-won wisdom. A woman, who chases life and new experiences with zest, ready to meet big and small victories as well as the inevitable stumbles of life.


This is me, as seen through the lens of Kaisa Vänskä. The picture is one of a series of black and white photos of me which were exhibited in Kuusamo, Finland.

Kaisa’s photography has helped me break through a layer of the silence that surrounds me. And it’s started important conversations.

If you want to read more about my story, I have rewritten the page that describes me. I have also written a piece on second-hand trauma, which discusses the difficulties of discussing trauma and the effects it has on those people who support and care for a traumatised person.

 

The field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

In the field of forgiveness
A field in Tuscany left for the wild flowers to grow.

I’m reading a book by Anne Lamott. She makes me laugh.

It helps that she’s easy to read, but it also helps that she writes about how terribly she handles an array of challenging situations, how she’s working on it, how she has all of these great strategies and when she puts them into place she comes out with something that’s nowhere near ideal, but not quite so terrible either.

Much of what she says involves some sort of gratitude and rather a lot of humility. She seems to constantly be admitting her mistakes. Saying things like, I got this wrong, I had to pluck up my courage and go and appologise.

Now I’m sure that I get loads of things wrong

The problem is that I’m frequently wrong about what it is I’m getting wrong. But it’s no wonder. My psychotherapist says I need to be more selfish, my dad says I need to be less selfish. They’re both right, because they mean different things by ‘selfish’ but I’m too afraid of both their meanings to really comprehend any of it at all. I continue blundering on. Most of the time I’m winging it. Guided by delusions of certainty I’m in a habit of getting quite lost.

I have this great belief that if I wasn’t hurting I wouldn’t be so defensive and therefore I wouldn’t find understanding what motivated my behaviour quite so difficult. But even if I’m not hurting I’m fearing hurting, and therefore act defensive just in case. Humility is the opposing force, but it’s quiet and patient and alien.

I want to admit when I’ve made a mistake

Yet I don’t want to negate my hurt. It’s that balance between forgiving someone for hurting you but still allowing yourself to feel the loss that I find so difficult to navigate. The mistake has been made. It’s in the past and is therfore kind of irrelevant now. However the hurt lingers. Hurt piles on hurt and sooner or later you’re feeling buried and you’ve no idea how to dig yourself out. The details are frivolous. All you want is recognition but it’s the last thing you know how to ask for. And when you do, you’re not polite. You’re openly angry (or more often in my case, passive aggressive). You pile up more hurt and throw it about.

I admire it when people just stand there, recognising it’s not about them per se, it’s about you, and your stash of pain. I made a cutting and uncalled for remark at my sister. I knew instantly that I was taking my stress at being in Italian city traffic at rush hour out on her (plus all the uncountable, tiny, seemingly-inconsequential things that weigh me down). I felt bad. That healthy feeling called guilt. I apologised as soon as we got home, and I could look her in the face. Apologies I think are best said to the face. But my sister, that brave soul, stressed-out just like the rest of us, stood there with dignity and that, ‘It’s okay, I understand, you were reacting to the stress, it was a stressful moment, I know you weren’t out to hurt me’.

That is trust.

However, trust can be broken

We say things that spew from things that are completely different from the words we’re too scared to really say. My psychotherapist sits quietly and points out that a little text message saying something so simple as congratulations may in fact be passive aggressive. I’m shocked – really? I want connection not disconnection. Yet, rather than asking for connection, humbly, I’m motivated by my fear of disconnection. I’m defensive. I’m dancing around issues because I’m too scared to face them head on. I fear I’ll act – to use a cliched phrase – like a bull in a china shop. Certainly many of the people I know are delicately beautiful but also somewhat fragile.

I like Anne Lamott

She throws all her mistakes into writing and seems to keep trying, keep writing and keep moving forward.

She quotes Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

And she has written rather a lot, including accounts of both her father and her best-friend dying. She’s written about grief. I have such a sense of loss sometimes. It can be helpful reading that there is only one way to get grief to budge – grieving. It seems so simple and yet reading it written down in black print does feel somewhat reassuring. And surprising.

I rarely know what to say. And perhaps when I do speak, my words are not the most elegantly expressed. But as much as my father jokes about my desire to be a hermit, I know I’m not someone who will ever be their best truly alone. I just have to keep on trying.

The book I’ve just finished reading is Small Victories by Anne Lamott. I’d also recommend her book on writing, Bird by Bird.

The mystery of cars

car
Just a little car spotted whilst walking the via francigena through Tuscany the other week…

I’ve learnt more about cars since I scrapped my car than I did in the eight years I drove it. My mechanical skills consisted of replacing the headlight bulbs (the mechanic who spotted that I was driving around with one upside down has to be credited for his non-patronising tone when he told me he’d just popped it in the other way up) and switching from my dead tyre to my spare tyre – yeah my car was old enough for a big spare tyre. Okay, I admit, the whole thing with the tyre I had step by step instructions from a kindly chap who also tightened everything up at the end.

I replaced the window wipers once, I think. I guess that’s something.

Everyone has some sort of limit defining their relationship with their car. I’ve known people who didn’t do motorways or who thought it was a huge undertaking for me to drive the five hours home to my parents. And yes, I guess the M1 can be a bit of an undertaking on a Friday afternoon. I know I’d rather pick any other day of the week.

But then there’s that chap I was coaching Business English with in Poland. He had a meeting in London, so he drove. And there was a man I met in a hostel in Brussels, he was driving home to Italy, from visiting his family in Finland. Normally he flies, but he fancied a little variety this time and he was about to scrap the car anyway.

My car was always a mystery to me

It would be serviced and occasionally someone would tell me that the timing belt or some other oddly named component needed changing and I’d nod and tap my pin into the card reader when the time came. I developed a loyalty to the garage I found with a matriarchal power structure and the politely non-patronising mechanic. The receptionist made me feel that she would look after me and my car and so I trusted her.

And I drove my little car across the alps, praying that the brakes wouldn’t overheat as I dropped through hairpin turn after hairpin turn. I drove it through the solid sheets of rain in Denmark, where the window wipers flicked back and forth, helplessly.

I drove it around the policeman, stood in the middle of what might once had been a road but was now more a space between buildings lined with debris and odd moments of lonely tarmac, between Naples and its port. Do not drive in Naples everyone said. A large group of teenagers pointed and laughed when I had to do a three-point turn. The policeman was holding a baby.

And yet my car scared me

I’m finding that my beliefs regarding my incompetence with cars is not actually founded on anything useful. Rather than I haven’t done this yet, been taught this yet, googled it or read a book on it, I was more of the mind frame that it was just too complex.

And, yes, it is complex. But so is life. Incompetence is a great defence, allowing you to sidle out of responsibility. However, I don’t want to be defined by my incompetence. I want to be defined by what I do, what I learn and how I engage with life.

This isn’t just with respect to cars

I’m discovering I’ve got all sorts of funny beliefs that I have never truly questioned. But with cars it’s obvious. I have spent years telling myself that I don’t know about cars because cars are not my thing.

But then someone comes along, and they don’t want you to do much, but could you press the brake pedal a few times whilst they bleed the brakes. And pressing the brake pedal isn’t so tricky, so you do it. Or they need to swap out their exhaust, and before you know it you’re lying on the damp ground beneath a car with black fingers and the knowledge of which piece of car connects to which.

Slowly your vocabulary grows, and the car just becomes an assembly of bits of oddly-shaped, particularly-named metal. The basic mechanics seem obvious and the fear that you once had about something randomly going bang dissipates.

Now at least I know I would check before putting in a headlight bulb.