All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

Entirely self-indulgent writing about books

I mention Cleopatra… so you’ve got a picture of a pyramid. It’s only a few thousand years older… Saqqara, Egypt, January 2016

There are many types of book. Some are written well, others are not. Some are compelling, others you put down, lose and eventually uncover again to repeat the whole procedure until at some eventual end you pass the book onto someone else, hopefully someone with a stronger desire to learn about the topic and fewer qualms about the author’s voice. Some books have sat on my bookshelf for years unread.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which looks like it might be seven or eight hundred pages has been waiting to be finished for many years. It’s neither badly written nor lacking a compelling element. Indeed, I once spent a good three hours in the bath reading it without any awareness of the hour. You might ask why years later it remains unfinished? I didn’t want dear Cleo to die.

When I glance up at my bookshelves, organized by whether the books have been read or not, one thing stands out. I’m much more likely to finish a shorter book. And I don’t just mean by page length but also page height. Which suggests to me that I need to limit my buying to paperbacks only a little taller than my hand span.

In addition to the books that line my shelves are those that I read electronically. Maybe Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov would have presented more of a challenge in paperback. My ebook reader is 174g. When I read Anna Karenina, I naively had no idea of the book’s true volume and worried greatly that the story might, at any moment, end. These worries began in Germany after only a few hundred pages and continued through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, until in Finland I accepted that Tolstoy wasn’t going to let me down.

And because I adore the annotation function when reading electronically, I’ve been led to misdemeanours with real books. Not only do I fold over the corner of the page as a bookmark (how sinful), but I also engage in marginalia. When I don’t understand a word, I’m bound to scribble the definition on the page.

If the writer wants to write ‘effulgent’ I feel compelled to add ‘! Shiny’. I have a lexical notebook for actually transcribing these words and improving my vocabulary, but most of the time it’s somewhere else and I’m just annoyed at having had to pull out my phone or a dictionary to find the meaning. My notebooks are full of words and definitions I’ll never learn. This electronic reading has the benefit of having a built-in dictionary, except I find that I seemingly read books with words that can’t be found within its normal dictionary.

If it were not for books, I’m not sure how I would manage to remain sane. Books are where I turn when life presents itself to me in a fashion I simply cannot comprehend. When I’m overwhelmed, I hide in a book. When I need help, I turn to a book. When I’m sad, I seek comfort from books. And when I’m angry I hide in books knowing that with my head in a book I am more likely to keep my mouth shut.

And that, in itself, is one good reason to read.

Shutting up

Not to size. The Netherlands, 2014.

There was a quote that I scribbled down about six years ago on a scrap piece of paper. Its words are attributed, but I’ve no idea where I came across the quote. What I do know is that the other day, when it fell into my hand, I decided that it would work as inspiration for some writing. Except now that it’s Monday morning and I’m facing the blank screen the quote is nowhere to be seen.

It must be here somewhere, among the lists of Spanish words which I have so far failed to translate into English, the scribbles I make as my students speak, an unfinished letter I’m writing, a drawing of a hamster, my to-do lists and grammar notes.

But I have swept all these papers aside so that I have a clear desk to write on

And in doing so have jumbled up all the components of my life. The past lies with the present and the plans and intentions for the future. Things classifiable as work hide with the deeply personal. Recipe books, grammar guides and the advice of the Dalai Lama make a united heap, crowned by a tiny book of Chilean legends.

Some people like to keep a strong separation between different aspects of their lives, but I find that the more I do that, the more it feels like I’m defining myself by the roles I play. I’d rather avoid that.

We all play roles, here in my parents house I am a daughter, but when class begins, I’m a student or a teacher. If we identify as the roles, and the roles change from situation to situation, who are we?

We act differently in different situations

But in the past, I believe there would be greater differences in my attitude. The more the role I was playing mattered to me, the more attached I got to the associated behaviours and responsibilities. I identified myself as the role. Inevitably this leads to a crisis. When you feel strongly attached to something, whatever it is, the potential for loss increases. The more attached you are the more you tighten your grip, driven by a fear that it could all disappear. Should such a role disintegrate, you fall.

For me, the better option is to engage a little obliviousness towards the role I’m supposed to be playing.

Any time I’m consciously thinking of the role over the moment, my mind has turned inwards and is analysing the past and planning the future. If I’m thinking this way, my actions and thoughts are going to be limited by what I feel I should do. I’m seeing myself through other people’s eyes, but I’ve shut my own. My behaviour will likely be pre-programmed rather than responsive to the people actually in the room.

Teaching is a good example of this

The hardest thing to do when you’re teaching is shut up. You take on a role of influence and power and this can very easily lend a bit too much spark for the ego. University lectures are the pinnacle of this egotistical teaching. For an hour, the students sit and take note of the professor’s great knowledge, but at no point does the professor seem to consider whether what they’re doing is assisting the student to learn. Why not pause at the end of the slide and let some cogs turn?

The most important part of any lesson is the moment where the teacher shuts up and gives the student time to think, meanwhile listening and watching to see if what they’re trying to do has worked. Frequently, the student’s mind is going in a different direction. The teacher wants to jump in, to stop the student and bring them back on track with the teacher’s plan, but often what the student needs is time to think through their thought, time to realise the connections.

The teacher wants to teach because that is what they feel they are supposed to be doing, but often the best teaching comes by saying barely anything at all. Learning is a slow and laboured process and it has to be given time. But the teacher’s ego, so proud of its knowledge, desperately wants to sabotage it all and interrupt.

I’m not saying that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with roles

They remain strong components of the functioning of society. However, using them to define ourselves leaves us vulnerable when the role we held ourselves so tightly to no longer exists. And it can prevent us daring to bring anything new to the table.

Sometimes patient, sometimes not so much

Flowers from the harvest festival. Murcia, May 2018

Patience takes courage. It is not an ideal state of calm. In fact, when we practise patience we will see our agitation far more clearly.

Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You

It is inevitable that from time to time as part of my teaching, some student, who is struggling to make a phrase sound accurate and is conscious of the time, will remark on my patience. I smile, accepting the compliment, though the truth is that I have never found being patient with my students difficult. While they’re thinking, I’m watching, trying to decipher the confusion. I wonder what little suggestion would get them to the bullseye, and in fact if any suggestion at all is needed.

Most of the time, students can self-correct. If they can’t identify the problem immediately, they might need some guidance as to where to look, but most of the time, once you’ve given a hint of where to look and possibly the nature of the mistake – for example, by asking them what tense the verb is in – the student can find the answer. The only other ingredient they need is time. Time to look, time to reread, time to think, time to remember.

Slowing the process down is not a frustration, it is the method. The only alternative to pausing on the errors is to rush ahead, with my voice giving the correct English and the student obediently and embarrassedly scribbling down note after note. Notes which will unlikely ever be read and even less likely be remembered in the natural flow of next week’s conversation.

But this patience isn’t something limited to the realm of learning another language, it applies to life. Allowing ourselves time to pause, stop and think is the only way that we can stop from making the same mistakes week after week after week.

With a student, there’s a sense of responsibility and care. When my students open their mouths they are taking risks, speaking a foreign language, uncertain of their own pronunciation, conscious that their word order is often disordered, that they miss words, that I might misinterpret their jokes or opinions. We must show the same vulnerability with ourselves when trying to reconsider and learn from the events of our own lives.

Except being patience with someone who is paying you and looks up to your guidance is a whole lot easier than being patience and staying in that point of vulnerability with oneself. To be patient with others takes courage, as Pema Chödrön rightly declares. It can be frustrating keeping your mouth shut. When the student falls silent my ego wants to fill the gap and it can be work keeping her silent and attentive. When the student is silent and thinking, and my ego wants to speak, I’m acutely aware of my own agitation.

But this is all good and necessary practise. My patience has to be a strong muscle, built with daily training otherwise, how could I ever find the courage to pause and listen to myself.

Learning as comfort: Crivelli, Botticelli y perspectiva lineal

Italy
Just one of those beautiful Tuscan sunsets. April 2012. Italy.

Winter has come. Outside there’s a blue sky and it looks deceptively like summer, but a bird sits on the branch of a bush, which bobs in the breeze, and one by one picks off the red berries.

And the underfloor heating in my bedroom has sprung into life.

I collect the glass milk bottles from beside the door and chat with my grandparents a short while on the phone. My first coffee is decaffeinated, but my second isn’t. I place my bum determinedly on my chair and click to play the video which constitutes the next step of the course I’m doing. It would be surprising if I wasn’t studying something. My brain is comfortable when engaged in study. I like how my awareness feels like it’s expanding, but without that panicked style ‘must learn’ of formal education.

Learning is comforting

It used to bother me that instead of remembering facts I just stored a bunch of vague ideas in my brain, but with time I’ve become more forgiving of my inability to recall specifics. I have intelligent friends who have remarkable memories and can store endless names, dates and details in their heads with immaculate precision. I’m not like that. If I do recall details, I have to admit that they are often not accurate details. If I ever start a sentence with a statistic, you should roll your eyes in response. It will inevitably be wrong.

Sometimes though, I feel that, for me, vague ideas are more useful

What I find fulfilling is knowing of ideas and themes that allow me to listen to conversations and connecting them to my knowledge and understanding of the world. I like walking into a museum or gallery and having a sense that the material is something I’m a little familiar with – regardless of what type of museum or gallery it might be.

This time I’m taking on the world of Renaissance Art… in Spanish

As I listen to the short lecture, I scribble down the words I don’t know (arrodillarse, adecuar, afán, pliegar, la orilla…) and after it has run through, I complete the comprehension questions. These throw more words (martires) at me but I understand enough to answer the questions, and when I don’t I look the words up.

The Annunciation, Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) (Italian, Florence 1444/45–1510 Florence), Tempera and gold on wood
Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation,
Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (Public Domain CC0)

Thankfully, the context is one that I can understand

Even if I don’t recall dates or names, I have by now read enough art gallery walls to recognize some core characteristics in Renaissance Art. One of the three paintings in today’s video is Botticelli’s Mars and Venus which can be found in the National Gallery in London. His ‘The Annunciation’ can be found in New York, which means I can’t have seen it, although I may have seen photos. Yet something niggles at me.

I’ve seen a similar image, somewhere…

The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius - Carlo Crivelli - National Gallery.jpg
Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Eventually, after frustrated searching, I discover an artist called Carlo Crivelli. I don’t recall his name, but his painting of the annunciation hangs in the National Gallery in London and I must have seen it because the Botticelli version looks like a similar yet simplified version of the same image. The two artists were contemporaries. The more I look at it, the more I know I’ve seen it before.

Beside Crivelli’s painting, on the wall of the gallery, I believe was a detailed description of the techniques the artist had used for creating a sense of perspective. Linear perspective wasn’t something new to me; understanding its role in renaissance art was. Botticelli of course being a contemporary Italian artist was engaged in the same challenges as Crivelli and experimented with the same techniques. And such techniques were what set the early renaissance art as being different to what had come before it.

And as my toes warm on my heated carpet, I have to delight that my mind can be playful like that.

Even if next week I’ll have forgotten the painters’ names.

The advantage of being a child

By Posted on Location: 2 min read
Summer in the Alps, July 2018

I am slowly becoming more knowledgeable about pronunciation, intonation and stress patterns. The only stress patterns I had previously considered were the stress patterns of my own documented life. The overwork and over-obsess and the bang fizzle pop of oh no Catherine has been doing too much again.

In language learning, stressed syllables and words are those with a tad more emphasis. In the English language the words you stress are the ones that carry meaning. If you can’t sense the stress change then you lose part of the meaning.

We show this stress too by the rhythm of the language

Between any two stressed words in an English sentence exists the same length of space, regardless of how many little bits fall in between. Spanish, on the other hand, is like machine gun fire, it’s steady and repetitive. When you apply the machine gun technique to the English language, you get something that sounds flat and ambiguous. When you try to stress time the Spanish language, you end up changing tenses and creating a lot of blank looks.

Intonation especially is a nebulous creature

Look it up in a teaching book, and the first thing you learn is that it’s hard to recognize. Or no. It’s hard to recognize by the human rational thinking brain. The lizard part of you which doesn’t know much about dictionaries or teaching theory understands it instantaneously.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Faked intonation, purposely changing the pitch of your voice as to manipulate, just sounds wrong. This, I guess is why actors really have to get into character. Intonation is hard to comprehend, hard to fake, hard to model, and hard to learn.

But without it we’re blind

The true meaning of language is hidden from us. This is the part that I think children learn faster than adults. Children are more willing to imitate, so they listen with more than just their ears. Adults often have their brains distracted running multiple tasks, emotions blinded by an earlier disagreement or a nagging doubt. Children are comfortable play-acting the words. Adults focus on the words themselves and forget the playfulness.

My tutor recently reminded me that intonation is also a kinaesthetic process. Sometimes when we’re trying to understand intonation it’s better to watch people speaking and notice the movement of their head or hands rather than focus on listening to the pitch. Again, when adults restrict their body movement because they are aware of their own body language or through their own insecurity, they limit their opportunity to learn this way.

No wonder language learning is so tricky

You cannot simply memorize words and structures, you have to play.

On Solitude

The valley. Yes, that’s the Mediterranean down there. Sicily, November 2016.

The heavy rain that woke me this morning ceases and is replaced by fine droplets,  barely visible to the eye, but there’s a quivering in the light between my window and the dark hedge telling me that it’s still falling. The sky is the sort that photographers detest. It’s one solid pale grey block. It’s not that it lacks character, dull can be a character trait too, but it’s so consistent that it gives nothing to draw the eye. There’s no spontaneity. The rain will keep falling and the sky will stay grey and not even the wild cat will show up today. She’ll be hiding somewhere safe and dry.

Last week, curled up in my father’s rocking chair in front of the roaring fire, I felt a sudden pull of nostalgia for the two weeks I spent in the south of Sicily. It was the fire that did it. I stayed in Sicily, near a town called Noto at the end of November in 2016 and although during the day there was frequently warm sunshine, in the evenings the temperature suddenly dropped. We had no central heating and the electricity was limited. If it had been sunny in the morning, we might get enough energy through the solar panel to run the washing machine, but dinner would have to be eaten by candlelight.

For some, such an environment might feel somewhat limiting, but for me it was a remarkable moment of quiet. A quiet that I desperately needed. In the evenings I’d take a book from the library and curl up in one of the guest bedrooms where I’d light a fire in the wood burning stove and contentedly read, write or stare at the flickering flames. Contentedly alone.

Staring at our fire here, lit because the windows had to be propped open as they’d just been varnished, I couldn’t help but think about Sicily and the perfectness of those quiet, solitary evenings.

Some people, I know, hate being alone. It makes them uncomfortable. They actively avoid solitude. I’m not sure what it is they fear or dislike about being alone with themselves, and I guess it’s something I’ll never quite understand, but still they talk of being alone with great distaste. Other people cling to their isolated-ness as an identity. As if somehow being able to survive being with themselves somehow makes them not need a thriving active social life. I fall into neither category. It’s the combination of quiet moments of solitude and comfortable connection with people I love that make me thrive.

That evening, in front of our fire, I picked up my Sicilian diary from the bookshelf and flicked through it, wondering what I had written about. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe that my diary would be me writing all about me. That I’d be self-pitying or excessively analytical. It wasn’t. In my diary I write about the flames, how the logs burnt and the heat warmed my skin, I quote passages from the books I’m reading and muse upon the writer’s thoughts. There’s a long paragraph where I’m sitting out on the patio in the sunshine watching a lizard devouring a grasshopper, I record the battle with an obsessive fascination which falls into a contemplation of the act of dying and how the grasshopper fought back.

Page after page, I write about the steam in the shower and the sun on my skin. I write about arguing with a god I don’t believe in. I write about the beat of the hammer falling in the yard of the villa the far end of the valley where a Sicilian man laboured.

And I’m not normally the nostalgic type, but sometimes when life is busy all around me, I think of the incredible quiet that I felt those few days in Sicily. And I long to go back to it.

Here, meanwhile, the rain continues to fall.

Part nine of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drink real coffee)

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read

Previously on Happenence:

Part one of the repatriation ordeal (in which the first flight is cancelled and I fill out forms)

Part two of the repatriation ordeal (in which I discover the second flight is cancelled)

Part three of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drive through a foggy desert)

Part four of the repatriation ordeal (in which I encounter the police)

Part five of the repatriation ordeal (in which I board a plane)

Part six of the repatriation ordeal (in which I compare airlines)

Part seven of the repatriation ordeal (in which my apple is incinerated)

Part eight of the repatriation ordeal (in which there is no hotel shuttle)

And now, finally, part nine…


Home sweet home, Yorkshire, May 2020

Things I remember about my tiny adventure in the airport hotel in Miami, the United States:

  1. The food was terrible.
  2. Everything was plastic wrapped.
  3. There was a lot of rubbish floating along the river.
  4. The hotel flooded due to the excessive rain.

But I curled up in bed and watched the film The Two Popes – on my phone due to not having a plug converter as I’d never planned on visiting the United States…. The hotel didn’t have one either, neither for a British or European/Chilean plug. How ill-equipped!

 And the film being partly set in Italy made me even hungrier for real food – those Italian pizzas – and a bit nostalgic for the Latin American life I was leaving behind – those crowded Argentinian streets.

Mostly though, I slept and thought about real food and real coffee

I needed the sleep as on the American Airlines flight home – in which not all the staff obeyed the rules about masks – I really failed to sleep. I wish I hadn’t thought so much about food as the meal on the flight was pathetic and just made me think of how much better the LatAm pasta had been. When breakfast came, I was so hungry and so disappointed that my stomach began to growl with frustration. I had no food on me as I didn’t want to get into trouble again for crossing borders with illicit apples – and I’d eaten all my remaining biscuits.

In summary: I left the United States inspired not to return, but to visit Cuba.

The next adventure was Heathrow and I found myself suddenly recalling my 2016 trip back from Egypt. During my Egyptian travels I’d covered my arms and used scarfs around my neck in respect of the customs there. It had become somewhat of a norm for me there although in England I’m the sort of person who if I have long sleeves, I roll them up.

Now I was travelling back from a city where we wore masks or got fined

In Heathrow, the only people wearing masks seemed to be the new arrivals. I stared down at the people unloading the planes in astonishment and mild concern. My stomach rumbled. I’d been wearing masks continuously for the previous 12 hours, and I was still feeling annoyed by the staff member who sauntered up and down the aisles with his posh clip board mask free.

Both on the return from Egypt and the return from Chile I found myself unsettled by the sudden onslaught of bare skin. It was like my internal norm had been somehow set to something non-British. Something more conservative.

Heathrow, being empty, proved surprisingly easy

I walked through immigration, picked my bag straight from the conveyor belt as it passed me and solitarily headed down to the tube. One other chap joined me on the underground platform, and we spread out, taking the opposite ends of the same carriage. A few stops later he departed, someone else got on, then off again. I had a shouting chat with one passenger – only the two of us were sharing the carriage but both wore masks and we social distanced with a dozen chairs between us – we remarked upon the absurdity of the situation. Then he got off.

I passed through central London however entirely alone

In Kings Cross station the cafés were shut, and my stomach was about to despair when I saw the little supermarket shop was open. I went in, bought water, a sandwich and pastries, pastries and more pastries and then sat down on the bench outside and feasted upon the food. Never has a shop bought, plastic wrapped British sandwich tasted so good. Unsurprisingly, given my homesickness, it was a palta, sorry… avocado sandwich. I wondered if the avocado had been grown in Chile and whether, like me it had been flown across the Atlantic.

I also desperately needed a cup of coffee, but none presented themselves. I sought out a helpful member of the station staff and explained my issues with tickets and things not downloading and after showing her my email confirmation was waved through the barrier with the assurance that there would be Wi-Fi on the train.

Finally, I boarded my train to The North and sat in a crowded carriage

There were three of us in it. A couple who sat at the other end of the carriage and me. Busy compared to the tube. Nobody came to check my ticket but I did find the WI-Fi and I did manage to message the father and beg him to bring me a real cup of coffee when he came to collect me from the station.

And then, a few hours later, there my parents were: stood the far side of the station one-way complexity. I bound through the gates and leapt into the arms of my loving family, still wearing my mask.

Finally, hesitantly after hours and hours and hours I removed my own mask

We walked to the car together, me with adrenaline pumping through my system, giddy on sleeplessness and my parents seriously relieved that I’d actually arrived home.

And waiting for me in the car, in a small flask, real coffee.

Orichette pasta and other solutions

Sunset at the Ponte Vecchio, Florence. July 2018
[Written earlier in the summer.]

This morning I go to switch on my computer and it fails

The computer used to belong to my father but knowing I couldn’t afford to buy myself a new one when the previous one died, my dear father gifted me his own. My mother had something to do with it.

The agreement between myself and my mother was simple, she would see that I had a computer, in return, I had to write.

This is because my parents are the best

Whatever I seem to throw at them they breathe very deeply, swallow their surprise, and then work out, amid all the chaos, what matters.

As daughters go, I’m sure I’m a bit of a nightmare; I don’t provide my parents with the easiest time. I’ve been known to go from sulking around the house helpless victim of my circumstances to announcing I’m heading off to the other side of the continent, alone, on a train. I get bored, book a plane ticket, and disappear to borrow someone else’s life. One moment I’m sending back photos of glaciers, then next I’m calling with a “Please help.”

I work too hard, or not at all, and my plans can’t exactly demonstrate evidence of a long-term stable future. I expect everyone else around me to have the similar binary attitude to working, but the reality is that most people seem to just do what it takes to get by and then have a weekend.

On Friday I decided to cook a pasta dish from my Italian cooking recipe book

I read the recipe and it required a certain type of pasta. I could have replaced it with any packet pasta. Tubes would have worked fine, as would spirals or those fancy little butterflies. Instead, I decided to make the pasta.

In the process covering every surface in the kitchen with tiny pasta ear shapes of varying quality. I read recipes and watched videos and dedicated myself to this crazy task.

It took me hours

But now, after doing hundreds of them, I can say that I can flick off orecchiette pasta with my kitchen knife and they really do look like little ears.

Sometimes I get angry at myself for being like this: stubborn, driven and facing an unexpected direction. I don’t have a paralysing perfectionism, but I’m not willing to compromise on what I want. Yes, it comes at a cost – I have a tendency for going a little crazy in the moments in between – but I don’t really understand how to be anything else.

My problem is often boredom

Boredom is a problem that I’ve never been very good at admitting to. I have the Spanish error of mistaking ‘bored’ for ‘boring’ in how I think about the two concepts. I assume that if I am ‘bored’ it must be because I am ‘boring’ and being boring is so very shameful to me that I would never admit that!

As such, I never leave any space in my life for feeling bored. My brain needs to be hot with plans, excitement and energy or if nothing else works anger. Then I write furiously and plentifully although not anything that you might want to read. Boredom is an absence of engagement with one’s surroundings and sometimes I counter it by trying to fight the world.

This isn’t perhaps helpful – boredom is apparently an essential component of creativity although I’m not sure I quite believe that. However, it’s not my creativity which I tend to worry about. For me the threat is the lack of engagement. After all it’s not a long step from boredom to apathy and from apathy a short skip to depression.

Orecchiette pasta shapes are a good example of me trying to find the new in the everyday

I’ve got the sort of hands that are used to making shapes. I was good at play-dough as a child, papier-mâché at school and although I rarely do any craft, it tends to come easily to me. Orecchiette pasta therefore although a challenge, is a fair challenge for me to tackle. I know how to get the information I need, and I genuinely believe that there’s no reason why I couldn’t do it as well as an Italian nonna if that’s what I so chose.

The Pros and Cons list

Saint George and an unfortunate dragon, Prague, 2014

My mother was making a decision the other day, whilst we were hula hooping, and I asked if she had made a pros and cons list.

One of the characteristics of the decision she threw out was that it is ‘scary’. Twirling around the living room I stated, “so that’s on the pro list.” To which my mother grinned in a silly fashion and concluded that, “perhaps it could be on either.”

In May I took a five-hour spontaneous drive in a hire car, across a desert into a quarantined zone to catch an aeroplane home. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it on time, but I knew I had to try.

Fear didn’t pay much of a part in all this. Or, it did, the adrenaline rushed around my head and while I was waiting for the chap at the desk in the hire car agency’s offices to learn how to use the computer, I paced up and down. Fear came along for the ride, sitting in the back seat, but fear comes along anywhere I go. Fear is an innate part of life.

If fear had had its way, I would have sat on my bedroom floor and cried.

However, although all my fear responses were screaming like sirens, I maintained a focused calm. I’m not trying to pretend that I wasn’t speaking at ten thousand miles an hour or that my body didn’t shake and twitch, but as soon as I decided to drive, my thoughts calmed.

The beauty of being human is that we can make a decision that isn’t solely dictated by our physical response.

I knew that I had to deal with the problem one step at a time. First, I had the get the car, then I had to drive north. At some later point in time I would worry about my lack of boarding card and the police cordons and how to actually get to the airport. Mostly, I had to keep myself together for the next 96 hours because this trip I was doing alone.

When I sat down in the car, I touched the gear stick and smiled to myself that at least it wasn’t an automatic. Never mind that the gear stick was on the wrong side which inevitably results in me bashing my wrist against the car door. I hadn’t driven a car at all in months but for some reason it didn’t seem to matter.

When the midget turned twenty-one, I took her to Europe. In a café in Vienna, after many protests, she ordered coffee with the shakiest of hands. It was a large central café and I was pretty sure that the waitresses would understand enough English to give her a coffee, but the Midget was terrified.

My dad did the same to me when I was a child. He gave me money for a burger in an airport lounge somewhere and told me I could have one if I bought it. The Midget was with me then too, but she was smaller than the counter. Stuck between my dad’s generosity and my sister’s pleading eyes I somehow managed to be brave enough to order the food. We both ate burgers that day, with fries.

By the end of our Europe trip, the Midget was asking at the desk for international rail tickets with more confidence than she’d managed for that first cup of coffee.

Sometimes you don’t however realise how many small steps you’ve taken until you look back at something you’ve just done – like a spontaneous 5-hour drive to catch a plane in a foggy desert – and realise that as a big picture it all looks rather brave.

But bravery is often not something big, but merely a small step against the current. A mere shuffle forward in fact. Shuffle after shuffle after shuffle.

I sat in that car and pulled out of the supermarket carpark and realised that I didn’t need to try and coerce myself into feeling better about the situation. Nor did I need to cry. My sole job was to pay attention to the road and get myself home. And all at once I knew that however ridiculous my situation was, I was going to be able to handle it.

I’ve dealt with worse.

So yes, when you make your list of pros and cons anything dangerous ought to be on the negative side of the page, but just scary… I’d leave that off the list entirely. Fear will always come along for the ride, just don’t let it drive.

How do you hold yourself to a beneficial routine?

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Viscacha, Machu Picchu, Peru. January 2020.
[I get asked some challenging questions sometimes… here’s my attempt at answering this one.]

That’s an interesting word isn’t it… ‘hold’, because it can be quite severe as well as protective. It can be restrictive as well as supportive. And I guess that in some ways I’ve ‘held myself to a beneficial routine’ with both senses of the word.

The preferred method is the supportive one

I try to do those things, like sleeping regularly and eating healthily, because I’m trying to support myself. I’m on my own side. This isn’t a fight where part of me wants something that’s not good for it and the other part is angry about that. No. I’m a team within myself and I fight on my own side.

But that wasn’t always the case and in times when my mind was at risk of self-collapse and the idea of the different parts of me working together in some cohesive team quite an alien idea, holding myself to the necessary routine was severe and restrictive. Sometimes you have to stop negotiating with yourself and set a simple clear boundary – particularly I think when it comes to the things that have the easy power to send you spiralling into a pit of self-loathing.

I was given a gift during my greatest moment of lostness in my mother

After all she made sure that I was receiving three healthy meals a day and it was she who woke me up each morning from the never-ending swamp of nightmares. Waking up at a normal time resulted in me going to bed at a normal time, and so she did a lot of the holding, protectively so.

Meanwhile, I focused on remembering to clean my teeth and wash my face. My sister will attest to the fact that when she calls me feeling less than 100%, the first question I tend to ask is likely to be nothing more complex than “Have you cleaned your teeth?”. I hold myself to a beneficial routine by focusing on the small but necessary. The basics are non-negotiable.

I tend to then focus on accepting that I’m a mess and that I need to do something about it

Even though on a typical day now I’ve got a gentle grip on my routine, when the anniversary of being raped came around I woke in a fog with the echoes of nightmares inhabiting my limbs. The painful recognition of how close I will always be to feeling like I’ve been smothered by the impossibility of existing can be terrifying. I was alone.

I was alone and with my biggest ally and greatest friend: I had myself.

I got out of bed and focused on two very important things

One, this was temporary. Even if such feelings lasted months rather than days, I knew that it wasn’t a feeling that would last forever. Two, I focused on the fact that I could do something about this very real feeling. I got up and made my bed. I then went in the shower with a biro gripped horizontally between my teeth and under the hot water I lifted my arms and struck a fighting pose. You’re thinking that this sounds very simplistic – it took most of the morning.

I know I cannot flick a switch and make myself happier just like that, but I’ve already decided that apathy towards myself isn’t something I can indulge. Even though my parents are amazing, at the end of the day I’ve got to take responsibility for me. If I want a happy life, I’ve got to get on with putting happiness in the world.

How do I hold myself to a beneficial routine? With all the depths of my human heart.