“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.
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.
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.
If the author of the email I received had known me a little better, he might not have recommended to me the autobiography of a comedian. A book published in 2017 no less. An autobiography by someone younger than my mother.
I have never seen The Peep Show, and if you had asked me a few days ago the first names of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb I might have shrugged, and then frowned. The frown clearly conveying my general feeling about people who try and manipulate me into laughter. It’s not that I have a low regard for all comedians, or all humour, it’s merely that I feel reluctant to join in.
I don’t know the author of the email’s views on comedy. And they aren’t relevant. What I do know is that the author of the email introduced the book as one that he’d strongly resonated with. The main topic being that of masculinity. Actually, he sobbed. Within the first chapter.
My curiosity woke up. Since I’m abroad I’m currently reading on my ebook reader, which has the delightful option of downloading a preview of any book. I figured I would read the preview, make an informed decision that the book wasn’t for me and then move on to something more… pretentious.
I read the preview and bought the book with a couple of taps. Then I finished the book, only really diverging from it when faced with the whine of the dog who needed a walk and the big, brown eyes of the non-English speaking six-year-old trying to express his need for me to play volleyball with him in the garden, Puss-in-Boots style.
First, Robert Webb knows how to write. Second, he has a story to tell. Third, he’s got the guts to tell it.
Fourth, his story is the story of all of us. How we grow up with certain beliefs, dictated by the society our parents and grandparents were raised in, and inadvertently pass down to our children. Despite the simple fact that these beliefs tear us through when grief hits, when loneliness clings or when we become afraid.
I promise I am not being wilfully dense about this. I don’t know what the words ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century.
‘How Not To Be A Boy’ is a book about screwing up. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to something within its pages.
This morning I didn’t run across the park, barefoot, in my pyjamas, chasing a small dog who had managed to pull open the front door and make his bid for freedom. This morning I didn’t put the Italian moka on the stove top, turn on the heat and then get distracted, downstairs, looking at Instagram, only to hear the whoosh as the coffee brewing came to completion, and so I didn’t have to dash back upstairs in fear of ruining my Italian family’s first coffee of the day.
This morning has gone somewhat smoother.
No. This morning I sat on the stool at the end of the breakfast counter, the odd one, the extra one, the one normally reserved for guitar playing, and I sipped my coffee and drew pictures of animals as requested by the six-year-old. He taught me the Italian, I taught him the English.
Now when I’m asked if I speak Italian I say, “Si, parlo Italiano, ma solo gli animali e le vedure.”
I’m getting pretty good at animals. This morning I learnt the name for a kiwi (bird) and a koala. I feel I may also remember them.
Kiwi = Kiwi
Koala = Koala
And now I’m sat out on the veranda, hiding from the sunshine, smelling of sun-cream and listening to the birds twitter along whilst provide the percussion with my typing.
I’m babysitting. I guess that’s the best word for it because if I say I’m an au pair it suggests that I’m doing a lot more than I actually am. Either way, whatever the terminology that you choose to use, this afternoon it’s me and an Italian kid.
It seems we’re surprisingly similar: both independent and introverted. The kid’s got a powerful sense of focus, such that I can imagine most adults envying him. I watch him play with his lego. He follows the instructions with impeccable attention to detail. He rarely makes a mis-step.
What’s clear however, is that he’s going to do this on his own. He was reluctant to let me even open the packet, let alone touch his bricks. But I can understand. When I’m working on a project I often find interference terribly frustrating. I also hate asking for help.
However, when you’re in this position of watching over a kid, and preferably bonding with said kid, you rather want them to play with you. Nobody likes not being wanted as a play companion, least of all the new babysitter who doesn’t speak the language and is reliant on the kid, who knows a handful of English words, to say when he needs anything.
So I spent a good long while in this predicament. I know the pleasure of peace and quiet and time to play alone, but as the responsible adult I want to be responding to something.
The good news was that the kid, who’s terribly polite, didn’t seem to have any objection to me being around. There’s no crying for an absent parent or telling me to go away. If anything, he mostly seemed mildly bemused by me.
To satisfy my need to parent, I found ways to make myself useful. I got him a drink – I don’t want the parents coming home and the kid complaining of a headache. I sliced an apple and gave it to him. He ate it quietly, whilst continuing with his lego. I sat on the sofa and read my book.
And then, a few hours later, he suddenly decided that he wanted attention. The change was remarkable. Suddenly he wanted to go outside and play football with me.
Everywhere I travel I seem to find more things I want to see.
Back in the car, after sliding down the fell (and dusting the snow off our bums), we drove down the ice covered winding roads leading away from the fell and towards another natural wonder.
This time we weren’t going up, and the water was definitely not frozen solid. We were heading towards the rapids, where the water moves so fast that it has no time to freeze. After seeing so much ice it seemed strange to be faced with gushing rapids.
These rapids were well equipped
It was one of those places where you can find a little hut with a wood stack and an axe waiting for you to borrow them. It makes you feel trusted and responsible. After being vaguely useful and carrying some logs to the fire pit, I wandered along the bank of these rapids taking pictures, keeping my feet moving to stay warm (minus 16?) whilst Kettu sorted out the fire. She got out her standard Finnish knife and started wielding it in knowledgeable manner. I couldn’t help but feel relieved that I have been scout and learnt to light fires and prepare sticks for toasting marshmallows or sausages on so I wasn’t completely out of my depth, but it definitely wasn’t something everyday.
Kettu had brought sausages for us
She prepared the sticks, quietly and efficiently. In the fire pit, the flames leapt around, dancing, but couldn’t melt the snow on nearby logs. I had little fear of being the cause of a spreading fire. We didn’t need a bucket of water for an emergency. We had a whole lot of snow. I propped myself up on a large log and waited, my stomach rumbling, wondering where I could position my sausage out of the flame but over some embers.
We ate the sausages with Finnish mustard – mellower than the English but very good.
I placed my foil-wrapped sandwich in the fire until it had toasted, and the lactose-free cheese had melted. It’s a pain being lactose intolerant, but in Finland, a larger proportion of the population are like me in this respect, and so obtaining lactose-free dairy products is easy. You just have to read the labels – which I can as long as the label is also in Swedish (laktosfri). In the supermarket, there are whole rows of cheese I can devour. After I’d eaten my sandwich, doing my best not to burn myself on the melted cheese, we ate our chocolate, which was not lactose-free. Some sacrifices have to be made, and when it comes to chocolate I have a rather short-term focus.
And then we tidied up, got back in the car and drove back home, where I had a date with the sauna. Because yes, in Finland even students have their own saunas.
But of course I want to see more
So having caught something of a sense of wonder for this place, I added the Oulanka National Park’s Karhunkierros trail to my list of hikes to do. Anyone interested? In the summer, when the weather’s warmer.
Side-note: It’s not actually Northern Finland. Finland happens to be rather long and goes rather further north than my little head can comprehend. Kuusamo is in Finland, and it’s just below the Arctic circle, which is very north to me but this isn’t the north if you’re Finnish. I guess it’s a bit like how Southerners in England think people from the Midlands are Northerners.
My feet point inwards when I walk, but I imagine that my clumsiness using snowshoes for the first time is universal. It might have helped if my first snowshoe walk was on flat ground, but we were at the bottom of the fell and the point of driving to the fell – as well as to see the birds – was to climb to the top.
The advantage of walking with snowshoes is that you can walk on ground that has not been made compact by constant traffic. We started however on the path, following it as it wound upwards. The hill was steep. (And I’m saying this as someone who is surrounded by steep hills at home. I take my time getting into third gear when I’m driving up to the village and I switch to the other side of the road when I’m running because it has an ever so slightly gentler gradient.) Small children overtook me as I clambered upwards.
The hillside was covered in tall fir trees
The Father likes a decent sized Christmas tree, and there’s a vaulted ceiling in his living room to accommodate such, but these trees were more the sort of heights you might import and then have the local newspaper write an article or three about. They were also buried with snow.
My Finnish friend, Kettu, laughed at my wonder at the trees by the car. But this was nothing compared to those at the top. They were drowning in snow. So much snow that you wondered how, under the weight of it they didn’t break. I recalled how when I was in France, and we’d been felling a few trees that were overgrown and blocked the view to a nearby castle. I had been find hauling away the branches of the first few trees, and quite enjoying it. Then we felled a conifer, and my progress dramatically slowed. Branches I expected to lift, I dragged along beside me, sweating profusely.
Kettu made me take off some of the layers that had been keeping me warm
It was a good call. When you’re trying to stay still as to not scare away the birds, you’re susceptible to freezing your toes and fingers off. Especially as it’s quite tricky to work a camera with two pairs of gloves on. As soon as you start walking, the situation is reversed. You’re trying not to sweat because what you don’t want is for your thermals to get wet, because then, as soon as you stop the cold’s going to get you.
During the first stretch of hill climbing, when we stuck to the path, and I waddled along in my snowshoes, I was overtaken by small children and their pink faced parents who were trying to keep up. As we reached the top though, the freedom of wearing snowshoes suddenly paid off. I could walk anywhere I wanted, as long as I didn’t stride straight over the edge. I took my camera out and moved forward and backwards, exploring the sculpture like shapes – snow-immersed trees – some of which were bent right over, creating huge snow arches, tall enough to walk under.
They made me think of how ice-cream might look if you’d told the Midget, as a child, that she was allowed as much ice-cream as she could cram on top of a single cone.
And this snow accumulation is all despite the shape of these trees having evolved, a bit like the rooves of traditional German houses, to shed snow quickly.
It seemed impossible that the trees could hold the weight of any more snow
But Kettu assured me that earlier in the season they had held more, and in terms of snow, this year was light. The ice on the lake hadn’t frozen so thick, and the snow had not piled so high. She talked about how gentle things were compared to her earlier memories, and the difference in the statistics that compared now to her parent’s childhoods. The ice-caps melting seems something far off and fictional – like birds that swim beneath the seas but do not fly. Here however, ice and snow is what the world is made of for most of the year, and for my friend, it’s supposed to be the ordinary.
When I looked out across the landscape I saw a view that would have been more believable if we were in a helicopter, because looking down from the fell, everything seemed flat. The forests made way for areas of flat, white snow, which I fancied as lakes, but Kettu suggested were more likely to be farmers’ fields. Despite the bold blue sky above, everything around looked like someone had sapped out the colour. All you could see below were the dark trees. Their branches being free from heavy snow showed us what a height we’d climbed. The national park here is known for its micro-climates. And these areas of unique characteristic are all at risk from changing weather patterns.
And once we had taken many pictures, and exhausted our legs, we began to think about our stomachs. And so, after making our way back across virgin snow to the path, we unclipped our snowshoes, placed our bums on the path and slid most of the way down, back to the car.
Kettu (my Finnish friend) and I took the cameras and some cheese to a fell, a hill that stood out above the flat landscape. I was assured that it was a fell, and that it ought be called a fell, and not a hill, although I would have used the word hill if I weren’t told otherwise.
We also took two pairs of snowshoes, a flask of tea, a large sausage (chopped in two), a cheese sandwich wrapped in foil and a couple of small bars of chocolate. We wore woollen socks, thermals and fleeces and layered up on the gloves. The temperature being somewhat chilly and the snow rather deep.
And then, at the bottom of this fell we got out of the car
The first thing you don’t realise about snow is how quiet it makes everything sound. Sat at my desk there’s a whirring of fans, an electric hum, and the rain, quiet but steadily drumming. Cars drive past, sloshing through the puddles, their engines engaging beyond the wall to climb the hill that leads away from the house. In the kitchen the Mother clanks china against china, the Father coughs, something somewhere beeps. Even as I write this, I’m firing my fingers against the keyboard, the thump down against the sensors in an unsteady beat, so loud you can hear it from the hallway.
But outside, on the edge of a fell, surrounded by a deep snow that hugs the trees tight, wrapping them up like Christmas presents, there’s a lullaby of silence. The strange thing is that you don’t always notice such silence. You stand there and everything feels fresh. The sunlight, low and bright casts huge shadows. But there’s so much snow that the light seems to come from all around.
And then you moved
When I stopped and listened I was amazed by the sound of the snow creaking under my boots. I’ve never heard snow behaving like this before. The snow in England is typically of the damp variety. It doesn’t squeak or moan. Occasionally a thin layer of ice might crunch, but not this noise. I was supposed to be quiet so that I didn’t frighten away the birds. I crouched, the layers of my waterproof trousers rubbing against each other, unsilently, and watched as a willow tit attacked s feeder hung from a nearby tree. Kettu scattered out some cheese, staging her shot, whilst I crunched around the trees, following the paths, in some sort of elated daydream.
Luckily, despite my incessant need to ask questions and the squeals of the snow as it compacted beneath my weight, the birds came fluttering by to say hello.
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?