El Coronel

The towers of San Gimignano
Tuscany, Italy, May 2018
On route to learning… Spanish.

A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.

On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.

As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.

I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.

“Perfect, we can talk in English.”

They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.

In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.

Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.

I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.

Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.

But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.

When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…

The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.

I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.

I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.

So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.

In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.

Reading it seemed like an impossible task.

Today, nearly two years later, I finished it.

Like fire, storm or thunder… the written word

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read
Summer in rural Peru
January 2020

I cannot read her work, so when a journalist friend tells me that she’s surprised when someone compliments her writing, I cannot judge for myself what she is publishing.

However, I am well-acquainted with her self-possessed use of the English language. You wouldn’t guess that neither of her parents speaks English from the elaborate emails she writes to me. Although, when free from the newspaper word-limit she’s undoubtedly verbose, her words captivate.

Words are magic.

Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – and yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind. Writing helps us to see what it is to be more completely human.

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English

I think by writing. My borrowed thoughts and beliefs get tested and made mine by my efforts to commit them to paper. When times get tricky, I reach to the written word. Through the written word I learnt to communicate about rape. My diaries hold the words I often don’t know how to say. Words like love, fear, grief, sex.

Considering that I was born with some mild disadvantage when it comes to the spoken word, it’s unsurprising that my linguistic confidence is so linked to pen and paper. Maybe Freud would say that after a childhood of having my h’s, t’s, a’s, u’s and f’s corrected (ridiculed), it’s of no surprise that I make my living teaching others to speak well. Or proper, as I would prefer to say.

My father thinks it mad that I am an English teacher. His daughter who started life with clogged up lugs and a lazy tongue, who couldn’t work out how many claps to fit in the rhythm of her own name, who, he jokes, learnt to speak after the younger one…

And yet, last summer my increasingly deaf grandfather complimented the clarity of my speech, quite taking me aback. But, he’s right. Not without toil, I am cleaning up my pronunciation: letting my day-to-day English slide towards what we call received pronunciation, standard, BBC or posh. I am challenging my substandard articulation and like a boy, whose voice is deepening, from time to time make sounds that surprise me. Sometimes I cringe to hear myself.

I’m not eradicating my language of the past, just reducing the ignorance that limited it.

I know full well that the way we speak forms and restricts our identities. I have no problem with teaching at the weekend as on the weekend to my Latin American students (even if I think it sounds ugly), but I’m clear that it’s not the way I speak. My students need a consistent, reliable English and there’s no point getting all uppity about one flavour of the language being better than another. Prepositions are tricky enough at the best of times. People are generally insecure enough about their language without having it picked-to-death by pedants.

I would correct their use of I am sat if they ever thought to make such a mistake, with the caveat that it’s not unsaid back home. When I teach, I do not pretend that there is one righteous English. And the more I teach, the more I fall in love. The richness is in the variety, the endless possibilities that tempts and taunts us. Yet I no longer feel at the mercy of the rulebook. My dialectical twists of grammar exist because I choose them to. I know more about English grammar than most native speakers. When someone points out that a word I say doesn’t exist to them, I no longer take it quite so personally.

Chaucer used a different flavour of English for each of his storytellers in his Canterbury Tales. Since then the language has grown, but the idea that we can each have such unique voices is still as true as ever. 

We each have our vocabulary – visible maps of our minds. Mine holds my words, whilst my friends each have their distinct linguistic maps. Idiolects mostly coinciding with the dictionary and grammar guides, but not always. Even within the closeness of family, my mother and I debate across the dining room table with phrases that the other would never say. I rarely invoke any Gordons.

The distinctiveness of our voice lays visible to others and yet we are oft-times unaware of it.

We might be perplexed by the words we do not understand but think little of those we do. We might have the ambition to sound like someone famous we’ve read, and realise we never will. I wonder if my journalist friend knows that Gabriel García Márquez was a brilliant journalist, though terrible at spelling

She listens to her language. During her voice messages, she frequently pauses to ponder which of a few words would be the most apt for her particular phrase. I’ve sat in awe, listening as she muses over regional distinctions between tiny populations in the 5-million-strong country of Finland. Her awareness of language, of identity, of the power of words, is a treasure.

Maybe though, she has no idea how special what she does is.

The uninvited guest

By Posted on Location: , 2 min read
Salt lagoon near San Pedro de Atacama.
This is the desert.
January 2020

We had a visitor to the house. Honestly, it really wasn’t intentional.

You see, I live in a small bungalow with a large German Shepherd. This works out surprisingly well most of the time. He’s a very good-natured dog, however, the other day, as my housemate and I were eating our lunch, we glanced out the window and saw that next-door’s cat was in our garden.

The dog peered down at it, calmly with an air of curiosity.

Now, you should know that this cat is not the brightest kitten in the litter. The other day it entered the garden and spent a long time mewing before we realised it didn’t know how to get home and dropped it back over the fence into next-door’s yard. Luckily, that time the dog was in the house and fast asleep.

This time we weren’t so lucky. This time we watched as the not-so-intelligent cat took a swipe at the rather-large dog’s maw.

The dog registered the threat as hostile and acted as a large German Shepherd in Chile is supposed to. He gave chase.

But of course, the stupid cat still had no idea how to get out of the garden.

So, the dog chased the cat, my housemate chased the dog and I did the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances: I grabbed the cat.

If I could have, I would have dropped it safely over the fence, but the cat fought against me (I have the scars to prove it) and I dropped the cat before I reached the fence. At which point the cat darted past the dog straight into the house, I followed, slamming the door behind me, putting myself in the house with the cat, leaving the manic dog barking in the garden with my housemate.

Now the cat was under a bed, with no intention of coming out.

The game became one of waiting. I cleaned up my wounds and put plasters where the blood still flowed, then, cursing the cat, we finished our lunch.

Eventually, of course, the cat had to come out, and when it did, I was ready. I pounced. Got it. My housemate rushed to trap the dog elsewhere and I gently deposited the cat, over the fence, into next door’s garden.

So to anyone who’s asking, no, I’m not finding this quarantine boring.

Supermarket shopping and flamingos

By Posted on Location: , 5 min read

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with my teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

Andean flamingos. Highly relevant to the story I promise.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

When my friend and colleague, the other language assistant in the city, flew back to England, she left me some curry paste. She explained that all I had to do was add coconut milk and I’d have my curry sauce. Which would have been fine, but I had no tins of coconut milk.

Which meant that I was heading out to go to the supermarket

Now I know we are all supposed to go to the supermarket alone, but I took Lady Patricia with me. Virtually. Physically, she was actually a quarter of the way around the world, safely snug in her apartment with a warm cup of tea.

But together we walked through my very quiet suburb, there was nobody about except a police car with two chaps, and an army truck with six soldiers (not-wearing masks, not 1.5 metres apart), but otherwise barely anyone. Luckily nobody seemed in a shooting mood at 9 am on a sunny Saturday morning so all was well.*

As we neared the supermarket though I noticed a long queue

There was also a long line of cars.

“So, Lady Patricia,” I explained. “There’s a long line of people here, some in masks, some with gloves, some really not seemingly with no idea of appropriate distancing, some risking getting run over in their enthusiasm to stay apart. Everyone looks rather serious.”

And my fellow shoppers did look rather serious. They looked almost panicked. I was aware that my grinning face and occasional spurts of laughter were a little out of place. Not to mention the fact that I was talking loudly and joyfully in a language that most people here do not understand.

I gleefully announced to Lady Patricia that we were being led in

I was going to be allowed to touch a trolley. I thanked the security guard who seemed entirely taken aback by the gesture. His face contorted like he wasn’t quite sure if he had permission to smile back. I think he was trying not to lose count of ho many shoppers her had allowed in.

Lady Patricia mistakenly thought we were in the supermarket. I explained no. The queue before had been to enter the supermarket grounds. This was the second queue: the queue for re-education and actual entry into the supermarket.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

I explained that there was a man with a megaphone

He was playing a special coronavirus recording to different parts of the queue. Lady Patricia said she could hear it but she only caught the end of the reel. That, I said, was the number to call if you have any problems. The bit she missed was on handwashing, the symptoms of the virus and the correct way to behave in the supermarket, how we must remain 1.5 metres apart from one another.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

Other men, dressed in black, wandered up and down the line flapping their hands at us making us all space ourselves out to the allocated social distancing standard. Sometimes it’s 2 metres. Sometimes in the foreign press, its 6ft. In the supermarket, it’s a trolley length and a bit.

Then we waited

I explained how I felt reassured by the multitude of security guards. Lady Patricia thought I meant because nobody was likely to violently loot the supermarket. I said no. And explained that security men in jobs are men in jobs which is helpful because it means that they are people getting paid. My greatest fear is the number of very desperate people there are going to be here in Chile as the economic situation worsens.

We waited to sanitise our hands and enter the supermarket

And I explained the requirements for our shopping trip. First that we were going to buy coconut milk, second lactose-free milk (because it’s always a good idea to stock up on milk), third, chicken for the curry, and fourth knickers.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

We said a happy ‘Gracias’ to the woman guarding the hand sanitiser. Her face did that same contorting thing. And then headed to the clothes department. I admitted to Lady Patricia that all this lining up and being counted made me want to rebel and go charging down the aisles with my trolley. I didn’t. I refrained. But I wanted to.

Normally I wouldn’t buy my clothes from the supermarket, but since the mall was closed and Chile is a bit behind on the whole online shopping idea, I didn’t have much of a choice.

A Chilean flamingo.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

You see, when I packed for Valparaiso, I had lots of knickers

In Peru I had plenty. In Torres del Paine I hand-washed the same few pairs, and I didn’t have to worry when I was in the countryside near Santiago because there too, I seemed to have enough. However, on moving back into my room in March I discovered that a number of items of underwear and all my trainer socks had somewhere, in some country, disappeared. Now we were in a crisis situation.

The shop’s offering wasn’t exactly exciting, but the more I explained the different designs to Lady Patricia, the more we giggled. The shop assistants huddled together and avoided looking.

After much deliberation, I chose six pairs of not very exciting knickers, except for Lady Patricia’s top choice: a pair covered in pictures of pink flamingos.

Just to prove I also saw flamingos…
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020

I wheeled my shopping through to the checkout, loaded my knickers and my coconut milk onto the revolving counter. The lady manning the checkout re-sanitised her hands.

I said, “Gracias.”

And to my great delight, she smiled back, contortion free!

*It was probably entirely a coincidence that I saw both the police and the army within 5 minutes of each other. When I ran along the beach Sunday evening as the sun was setting in the most beautiful orange glow, there were no officials around to reprimand the few gathering groups…

Trying out different teaching techniques

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.

How The Wise Woman Taught The Power Of Choice

I found this post unpublished in the archives. I don’t believe it’s ever been read so I thought I’d pop it out now for people’s entertainment. It was probably written some time in 2015…

This is me staring at Los Perros glacier. To my horror, our Torres Del Paine trip involved an excess of early mornings.
February 2020.

When the Mother met the wise woman

Once upon a time, the Mother went to America to meet a very wise woman.

It was during the summer. There was no school, no rules and no food in the fridge. The Father was quite incapable of functioning without the Mother, not because he couldn’t look after himself – he can. But he didn’t seem to be able to do anything. He walked around the house, went to work, came home and walked around the house some more.

It didn’t matter. We bought some food, filled the fridge and cooked dinner for the Father. The Mother was busy doing something else, something very important.

She was listening to the wise woman, and learning about choice.

The Mother returned. The Father stopped pacing around the house.

And like the kitchen had taken on a different look, so had the Mother.

Because the wise woman had taught the Mother a tremendous skill. A skill so simple that it’s often over looked.

She taught my Mother to choose.

The difference between goals and choices

When you make a choice, you’re acknowledging the alternative.

If I chose to travel, I am letting go of a lot of security.

If I chose not to travel, what is the price I’m paying?

This is what I see as the big problem with goals. When we write up goals we’re articulating our dreams, not what we’re willing to lose, and it’s loss not gain that we feel more strongly. Inevitably, the loss is what makes achieving our goals so hard. It’s the time that has to be committed, the strain in our legs after a long run, and the bitter cold on our skin before. The loss of options, the loss of comfort.

How choice changed the Mother

The Mother has embedded in her children a sense of awe. However hard we try, we are simply not the sort of girls who can have two loads of washing on the line and dinner cooked before 7am. If either of us open our eyes before 7am, we’re ahead of schedule.*

The Mother is like a whirlwind. As children we would have to run to keep up as she walked down the street.

She’s like a humming bird, whilst I’m more like a tree. Or at least in my eyes. The Midget accuses me of doing to much. The father accuses me of allowing myself to burnout, again.

When the Mother returned from visiting the wise-woman, she brought back with her the simple fact that her exhaustion and inability to sleep was her choice. Just like my ulcers, stressed skin and headaches are my choice. When we keep pushing ourselves the cracks are going to appear.

When we set goals we have to acknowledge the cracks. When we keep pushing despite the clawing tension in our backs, the aches in our shoulders the strain in our fingers from hitting this keyboard time and time again, the cracks widen.

So when the Mother returned from the wise-woman, she slowed a little and started thinking a little more about the consequences of doing everything.

Which is why the wise-woman, who I’ve never met, is my hero.

*Actually, my sister seems to be more than capable of such ludicrous behaviour.

The Hello Kitty notelet method for dealing with overwhelm

Looking down towards the campsite on the second day of our Torres Del Paine trek.
Such a trek took some planning, but at the same time, we had to be flexible because the weather could change at any moment and the John Gardner pass would be closed.
February 2020

The other week, I was lazing out on the terrace of the house of the psychotherapists, with no other company than that of the cat, the occasional stray dogs who came to drink from the swimming pool, and the horses in the field beyond. I figured that it was good to rest and have a little solitude before recommencing my teaching responsibilities at the university.

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

– Winston Churchill

So many plans must have fallen through these last few weeks, worldwide, which has possibly left us all reeling in shock. My mother told me about the supermarket delivery man who is struggling because he’d just been about to head off to Greece for a month and re-plan his life. A dear friend had handed her notice in at work and to her landlord (land-person?) and was about to head off of a cycle ride around Europe. I know I am angry about my plans not going to plan. As are many other people. Dreams have been paused. We’re left with tremendous uncertainty.

I was about to learn how to do a headstand with my yoga teacher and then classes were cancelled. I shall have to wait for the opportunity to return. In the grand scheme of things, not yet learning to do a headstand seems a rather ridiculous thing to become annoyed at. There are people losing their livelihoods. And yet, for me, it is a big deal. It was something I had been diligently working towards. Small things matter to us as well as the big ones.

When my mind was having a hard time of things, I would easily get overwhelmed. I think this is true for any of us who had a fixed idea of what we do and what we should be doing and suddenly find ourselves not entirely sure what the hell we are doing. There are so many questions, so many options, so many decisions that we have to make that we simply do not know which way to turn. We believe we should make educated, rational choices about our lives, but we do not have sufficient information and our minds are easily emotionally clouded.

I reclaimed control with a set of hello kitty sticky notes. On each one I would write three tiny tasks at random so that my notes would read something like:

  • Wash hair
  • Draft CV
  • Ring Dentist
  • Clean window
  • Trim lemon tree
  • Outline article
  • Email agency
  • Change bedsheets
  • Paint nails

I would try to avoid any tasks that I was particularly anxious about from clustering together on a single note. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself, I would simply reach over to the pile of half-completed Hello Kitty faces and choose something. Then, when I had struck a line through all three tasks, I would crumple up the pink paper and toss it in a pint glass. Over time, the pint glasses began to fill and when a row of them sat on my windowsill, I started feeling like I was making progress. That I had some momentum.

I do feel quite like the whole of March has almost gone by and I have done nothing. This is perhaps the consequence of not being able to go anywhere. One day looks very much like the next. Exercise is keeping my mood reasonably balanced, but I am missing the highs I get from face-to-face social interaction. The truth is I feel much better after teaching a face-to-face class than I do after teaching an online class. Although thank the gods I can teach online as it means I have something useful to do with myself.

So I’ve decided to go back to my pint glasses of Hello Kitty faces approach. Just this time, I have a vase and each time I go for a run, I’m bringing home a single small rock to drop inside it. A visual record of the miles I’ve run.

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with a teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

Let’s throw rocks at the sea

The Pacific Ocean, La Serena
August 2019

This morning I have spent way too much time searching the internet for a statistic in a book. The statistic is that “Depression affects as much as 80% of the population [of Inuit peoples of Greenland]” the book is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.

As you might have thought, I started this investigation in the notes section of the book, but for this statistic, nothing. There were references to papers on suicide – and just googling Greenland suicide rates brings up a multitude of scary reports declaring Greenland’s suicide rate to be particularly worryingly high. Depression is referenced in such papers as a factor in suicide. However, I have nothing on the actual rates of clinical (also known as major) depression in the Inuit peoples of Greenland or any context on the original statistic.

Then again, I am sceptical about rates for such things anyway

After all, there is no official record of me ever being depressed and the only official record of me being sexually abused is the little red flag that I asked to be placed on my health record.

During the winter months, the Inuit people stay inside, in their usually small houses keeping close to keep warm. The book explains that “In these circumstances of enforced intimacy, there is no place for complaining or talking about problems or for anger and accusations. The Inuit simply have a taboo against complaining. They are silent and brooding or they are storytellers given to laughter, or they talk about conditions outside and the hunt, but they almost never speak of themselves. Depression, with concomitant hysteria and paranoia, is the price paid for the intense communality of Inuit lives.”

The other day, I stood in the living room and jumped up and down

A grand simultaneous two-footed stomp – and made an angry noise. My housemate glanced up from his phone and gave me a questioning look asking, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing?’. I apologised and said, in Spanish, that I had to release some of my frustration at our current situation so that it wouldn’t pop up in my dreams. He nodded and went back to his phone.

The next morning our conversation went something like this

Him: How many people did you kill last night?

Me: Zero. I told you. With the ‘ragghh’ no bad dreams.

‘How many people did you kill last night’ is a reference to a morning some months back when I looked worse for wear and couldn’t speak Spanish very well and eventually explained that I was shaking off an unpleasant dream in which I’d become rather murderous. ‘How many people did you kill last night’ means ‘how did you sleep?’. It’s an invitation to express how I am.

If we don’t have safe, civilised ways to acknowledge our emotions, they will either show themselves in unsafe, less-civilised manners or submerge themselves silently within and we will become numb. Acting in an unsafe, less-civilised manner is a shortcut to relationship destruction and becoming numb is the highway to depression.

Last week I stood on the beach and threw rocks at the sea.

All of us have just lost an incredible amount of our freedom

Many of us have lost much of what gives us meaning in any given week. There is a tremendous amount to feel angry about, frustrated with and much to grieve. Then there’s the anxiety that’s churning through our bloodstream. I have ulcers in my mouth, my skin looks horrific and those muscles around my neck and shoulders are stupidly tense. Routines have shattered and relationships (both with those people whom we can’t see and those whom we are now seeing much too much of) are going to be tested. Rationally I understand the need for social distancing. Yet it’s against my instincts. My body believes that acceptance is conveyed with touch and that if no one is picking the fleas out of my fur then something is terribly wrong.

The fact that everyone is currently facing the same horrible challenge doesn’t negate any individual’s emotions. It is not self-pitying to grieve the loss that we are going through. It’s entirely reasonable to be ridiculously anxious when faced with tremendous uncertainty.

There was a dead sea lion on the beach. The vultures had gored out its eyes.

Someone else being worse off than you is not an excuse not to grieve your own pain

My sister and I had a long conversation a few weeks back about the difference between complaining and expressing negative emotions. Smashing a plate on the patio is expressing emotion. Verbally, when you’re expressing an emotion you probably are referring to the name of an emotion. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. I feel hurt. If you can say the sentence using the word feel, you’re probably closer to expressing emotion. Except ‘I feel that’, is possibly ‘feel’ masquerading as ‘in my opinion’.

The wonderful lady who led the yoga retreat I went on with my mother recently wrote:

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I wanted to check in. After the news of lockdown last night in the UK I wanted to see how you were. Maybe I am still processing my own feelings. When I closed my classes down a week ago I felt devastation. So sad for the people I was going to miss, grieving for the 9 years of hard slog I had put in to build the classes up. And overwhelmed by the thought I was going to have to stay away from family. And yet people kept telling me to stay positive. I felt like screaming at them. This for me was not the time. I had to let the other emotions in and give them time to leave. If I didn’t, if I put a fake smile on and posted positivity that I didn’t feel, those emotions would get stuck. And if they were still there, how does the positivity grow? So it’s okay to cry, to feel overwhelmed, to be angry. Let them all in. Go with them. They will leave when they are ready. Then you can get your positive pants on. And let me tell you, those pants will be stronger and more elastic, they will hug you in and they won’t give you a wedgy! 😉😉 #howareyou? #lockdown #stayathome #covid_19 #stayhome #stayhealthy #staysafe #emotions #itsokaynottobeokay #muchlove

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Not everyone is articulate about their emotions

‘We’re doing fine’ or ‘surviving’ might possibly actually mean ‘I have uncomfortable feelings but I haven’t got a clue how to speak them’ or perhaps ‘I feel ashamed of admitting what it is I am feeling’. Or it might mean ‘my feelings are none of your business’.

My dear friend Jessika recently wrote a whole lot about her struggle to express how she feels sometimes.

Complaining tends to focus more on a series of events

And has much more to do with ‘you, he, she, it, they, the virus, the government, the economic reality’. Sometimes, when it can spark positive change, it is vital. Sometimes it does nothing but wears down the people around you. Think it’s fair to say that we are all a little thin-skinned right now.

I feel frustrated that I cannot work. I am worried about what is going to happen. I hate having my freedom restricted. I feel sad that I may not see my friends here for a long time. I am angry at my own helplessness and how this crisis is going to have such a harsh economic effect on those who were already struggling.

Finding a balance between speaking and staying silent is going to be challenging

Inevitably, we’re all going to sway too far into unhealthy complaining, excessive inward absorption of our emotions and spew few too many unkind comments or stay too silent. This is the reality of being forced into this new, uncomfortable, unnatural way of living. However, regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, it’s clear to see that if we don’t manage our situation, there will be a noticeable mental health cost further down the line.

Yet, although we are undoubtedly scared, maybe this is a moment where we can learn the names of some of those tricky words: sadness, grief, loss, anger, hatred, fear. Maybe this moment where we are forced to readjust can be a moment where we learn to see our emotional states a little clearer. Maybe we can look after one another and learn to ask and answer those tricky questions like ´how many people did you kill last night?’.

Let’s throw rocks in the sea.

For some not-so-light reading:

Last semester, revolution; this semester, a virus.

Uncertainty.
Machu Picchu, Peru, January 2020

Unsurprisingly, the university has shut, again

This time due to coronavirus although our region still has no confirmed cases. As of Wednesday, the country’s borders will close. I cannot begin to imagine the social, economic and psychological impact that this is going to have upon people here. We’ve already had a tough time. I haven’t taught a full week of classes since the beginning of October, a result of the continuing social unrest of which there is likely to be more in the lead up to the referendum on the constitution – coronavirus depending.

The attitude at the university last week was to work fast as to get as much done as possible before any more chaos hit us. Unfortunately, the term lasted only a week before the emergency closure. I taught in two classes. Now everything is being adapted to online teaching. With my unenthusiastic students learning conversational English, I’m not convinced how well online teaching is going to work. Especially if they are all panicking about pneumonia.

It isn’t easy to organise one’s life when the structure that it was built upon crumbles

I spoke to my father last night – I was bitterly angry about my life plans being shunted around all over again – and what my father kept going on about was making sure that I have a routine.

Personally, I feel that I have had a lot of practice at structuring endless time – all those months when I was in therapy, all that time where work was closed because we were terrified anarchists would burn down the building with us inside, all that time travelling with no particular itinerary. What I’ve learnt though is that it’s not easy at all. It might take a lot of effort to make yourself get up in the morning to go to work, but when there’s nobody expecting you to be anywhere, getting up at a sensible hour becomes much trickier.

It has taken me years to build an independent routine

One that is adaptable to whatever circumstance gets thrown at it. Sometimes, I grouch about and have no interest in following my routine. Sometimes my emotions get the better of me. However, in other moments I look at the clock and my overwhelm dissipates because I know exactly what I have planned to do. All those scraps of to-do list written month after month whilst fighting the post-traumatic gloom, they’ve all built up into a series of strings of habits.

This means that this morning I woke up, had breakfast, made my bed, got dressed and sat down to edit this article. At about 11 am I will have coffee and something to eat before continuing to either write or study. After lunch, I will read or paint. I will go for a walk. If I siesta it will be post-lunch, but before 3 pm and only for 25 minutes. Undoubtedly, I will call someone back home for a chat. In the evening I will light my candles, meditate and fill my hot water bottle. All of this is automatic. Between it, I will stomp and rage.

There is a surprising amount of comfort in habit and routine

Not knowing what to do next can be freeing, or it can be overwhelming. When you can’t plan what to do next week, there’s a danger that you’ll end up doing nothing. We forget how much we depend on our lives being safely regular. Our bodies work tremendously hard to maintain inner stability, and they get exhausted if our external worlds change too rapidly. Adaption takes time.

With such a sudden shock to our systems of living, we are all at risk of becoming too gloomy. Depression often occurs when emotions overwhelm us and we fail at processing all that we feel. As much as the virus is a risk, so is depression. We are all social animals. We depend on human touch and comfort to psychologically thrive. Typically, we need a variety of interaction. Perhaps I take the threat of depression so seriously because I have had to put so much energy into fighting against it.

The other day I was reading a book on this morbid topic

In the book, the writer says how many people ask him why he’s on anti-depressants when he is no longer depressed. He explains that he isn’t depressed because he maintains his mind’s chemical balance by using anti-depressants. This got me thinking about the many changes I made to renormalize my life after trauma. A thousand tiny choices, like choosing to make my bed. Tiny choices which maintain my sanity, my balance.

As hard as I try, my life doesn’t seem to want to be normal

Frankly, I am pissed off that I have spent so long working to get to the point where I can steadily work and rely on myself to turn up to work and do a decent job every time, only to keep having my opportunity to work cancelled.

This though is just one more frustration that I will have to overcome. I must remember that in comparison to the monsters I’ve already slaughtered, it’s not such a big deal. Sometimes I feel silly writing out on a scrap of paper that today I am going to brush my teeth and have a shower. It seems ridiculous to write drink coffee, eat lunch, write a blog post. And then possibly crazier to systematically work through my lists and cross out the things I have done. Make my bed, tick. If I had great responsibilities then maybe a list would seem less silly, but since I don’t silly is going to have to be the way forward. Tiny choices, every day. It works.

The worldwide psychological impact of coronavirus is going to be huge

And in many cases, it’s going to be devastating. I believe it’s going to be the tiny, innocuous choices which make the big difference as to how we cope.

As for me, I’m sticking to my silly lists and repetitive self-care and self-soothing routines. I intend to take this ordeal as a challenge from which I intend to thrive.

A hazy summer: thoughts on solitude

A road somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020.

I have a few days alone. I like having some time to myself. I sing songs from musicals, using parts of my vocal range which would otherwise never sound and keep myself entertained. And yet, whilst I value the quiet as a precious necessity should I want to be a sane contributor to society, I do not deceive myself and believe that being alone is a comfortable experience.

Sometimes it is; sometimes I stamp my foot and get angry. There’s nobody else’s voice around, just the thoughts that bob in my mind, clashing up against one another. I can make a choice, either to be miserable with the situation or to be more tolerant of being me and show myself some love.

Which is where the real value of having some time alone comes in. For me, its necessity comes from the inevitable discomfort it brings. The day stretches out in front of me, and there is nobody else but me to fill it. My actions will be judged by nobody but myself.

Often when the opportunity of solitude arises, I choose to take a deeper look in the mirror and I choose to follow or wrestle the thoughts which have tripped me up in previous months. So when I first headed to Valparaiso, alone, I focused on why Christmas proved so emotionally challenging. It’s easy to assume that the obvious answer is the only answer, but it is rarely so. I was ratty the entire week because of an accumulation of stresses.

However, what for me was worse was how irrational it made me feel. The irrationality itself is much more threatening to me than any homesickness. Overwhelming irrationality is something I associate with my memories of mental illness. A fog of emotion blinds you, making sensible thought impossible.

In such situations, the first step is to recognise I am thinking in a delusional manner. The second is to accept that it’s defensive and that in some way or another, I feel threatened. The third step is then to focus on doing kind, loving things for myself. This includes calling the right person to listen to my needs, someone who is going to have the guts to speak to me bluntly and honestly and whose love for me isn’t conditional on me saying the right thing. By this I most often mean my sister.

Later I can return to consider why my defences have been triggered.

It is incredible how difficult it is to do any of these steps, but I have come to the decision, with the help of my moments in solitude, where I have time to reflect upon my hiccups, that this is the only method that works for me. When my mind’s a mess, there’s no point pushing onwards, I have to stop and slow down. If I don’t, I will hurt people.

One of my missions this weekend is to write out again my self-care instructions. This is where I list exactly what I need to do to ensure that I am healthy, safe and cared for. This isn’t mad, it’s how to survive my madness. This process is how I grow resilience as part of my everyday life.

It might sound excessive, but it seems, to me, a small effort to go to if I am going to avoid having a relapse into any emotional prison. I live in a country undergoing a social uprising, a long way from any long-term friend or family. I can’t afford to not be resilient and this simple method works for me.

I was particularly inspired to rewrite these instructions and think my process through from scratch, because of a conversation I had with a prison psychologist recently. He said one of the shocking things about the female inmates was how ugly they let themselves become. He was referring to the lack of self-care they showed themselves. How they gained weight in prison and abused their flesh, not bothering to show themselves any love.

My choice is to be better prepared for when the inevitable bad days happen. To have a series of habits and routine activity which keep me from getting too lost. Have a guide as such, so that I automatically know to make the phone call to someone with the capability to listen. Having days or weeks of emotional fog is part of the human condition. It doesn’t make me, or anyone else a lesser person. we do the best we can. However, it does pay to be prepared.

With such preparation, my defences take on a different appearance. They are no longer merely impulses, amid the chaotic thoughts bombarding my mind, I have some rational, safe mechanisms for looking after myself.

This well worth a few days of not always comfortable solitude and a bit of hard thinking.