I was tidying up Christmas decorations in my grandparents house when I reached into a large plastic box, the sort my grandparents store baubles in eleven months of the year, up in the roof. And ouch. My finger hurt. Sharp pricks in my skin. A brush with something sharp.
I peered inside the box for a better look, and discovered,
to my astonishment, a cactus.
Round, pale green and spiky, I carefully picked it up and
showed it to the Grandmother
She wasn’t at all surprised. She knew there was a cactus in the box. She had already stuck her hand in and pricked herself that morning. And then she’d done nothing about it. She was mildly amused that the cactus had survived what she assumed was a full twelve months in the box, but otherwise unperturbed by the situation.
Personally I think she should have been more bothered, bothered enough not to leave it in the box with the baubles waiting for the next poor soul to reach inside.
“Put it in the bin,” the Grandmother said.
So, as a dutiful granddaughter, I placed the cactus by the
A short while later I heard a commotion in the kitchen as the Grandfather discovered the cactus and decided to investigate. It was, he claimed, very much alive. Just in need of replanting.
The Grandmother insisted that the cactus be binned.
A short while later the Grandfather was seen trying to find a home on one of the overcrowded windowsills in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house, a room filled with more plastic boxes, bags, cardboard and evidence of Christmas. The Grandmother, well, she was heard to be rather disparaging about his efforts.
Tensions were rising.
Which is when, as the dutiful granddaughter, I stepped in
and volunteered to rehome the cactus. Now obviously, you can’t take a cactus in
your hand luggage to Spain… so I wonder how it’s going to appreciate the care
of its new warden… the Mother.
I’ve been in England a week and I remain somewhat disorientated.
Writing this, I sit at my desk. It’s an old-fashioned, green-leather
topped desk with drawers (some of which lock) and the scars of a life spent
existing full of things. It has history. I acquired it from a junk shop in the
middle of a public carpark in some small unpronounceable Welsh town. It’s lived
in four different houses under my ownership alone. And, whilst I admit that it’s
not the ideal shape for perfect ergonomics, it makes up for it by being psychologically
wonderful. It feels like a desk where one writes. It’s a comforting presence.
Something sturdy and reliable. Homely.
A week ago, I was sweating as I dragged my tiny suitcase into the Spanish airport
I wore coat and a scarf over the layers I imagined would be necessary in such a cold country as England. The sky outside was bright blue. Straight from the tube bright blue.
But, when I arrived, three hours later in Yorkshire, I appreciated
the layers. I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and tugged them onto my hands.
The chap at passport control hoped I’d had a lovely holiday, I laughed and told
him the holiday was yet to come.
We went to my sister’s house for Christmas
Yes, the Midget (and the Blacksmith) own a house. That’s my baby sister. It’s got walls and ceilings and multiple toilets. They had just (and I mean just) had an oven installed. My baby sister owns half an oven.
I curled up on the corner of her sofa and started working
through the Blacksmith’s library. In the past my very small baby sister would
have asked me questions about the cooking or would have wanted me to give some
sort of guidance, but other than a brief explanation of how Grandmére
(that’s the French grandmother I once lived with) made soup, I found myself off
Afterall, if we’re being entirely honest, nowadays the
Midget is the better cook. She (and the Blacksmith) made the Christmas dinner appear
(other than the parsnips) on the table in a manner you might otherwise only
believe was possible in photoshopped recipe books. Wise elder sister advice is
unrequired. I know nothing of such grown-up activities as house ownership.
Once upon a time I would have got all hung up on the concept of home
I would have felt the disorientation and instantly felt a need to reaffirm my identity. I would have felt my role of bigger sister changing and compensated with bossiness. But sometimes the best seat is the corner of the sofa, and the best response to disorientation is to smile, with pride.
Now I’m back in my bedroom at my own desk. Well, the bedroom
that sometimes I sleep in when I’m here. I have my records spinning, the music
floats out of my speakers filling the room in a fashion I daren’t try in the ‘habitación’
I rent back in Spain. There are Spanish verbs on the walls and a piece of
masking tape labelling the small cupboard inherited from my Nonna as ‘la mesa
de noche’. It feels a long time ago that I read those words.
For the first time in a week, the sky looks somewhat blue.
Not out of the tube blue, something somewhat mellower. A wintery, Yorkshire
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.
“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.