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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

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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.”

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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.

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