Why I read

What’s beyond? Moon Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 2020. 

This lockdown is proving tedious.

I’m not used to winter and what with having the kitchen light on to see my boiled egg in the morning and then the sun setting halfway through the afternoon, I’m despairing from the lack of sunshine. I’m like a bird in a cage having an angry rant at its reflection in its plastic mirror. If I’m not careful, I’ll fracture my beak.

Luckily though, dear Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and I’m one of the fortunate people in this world with an ample supply of books.

Reading is my coping strategy for most problems

Everyone has coping strategies, otherwise we wouldn’t survive, and reading is quite an acceptable one as far as things go. It doesn’t poison your lungs, damage your liver or play havoc with your cholesterol. If anything being well-read is applauded. As a reader, you learn, you build awareness of the world and tend not to upset people in the process.

Still, being that it is a coping strategy, it’s worth thinking about. People have been known to comment upon my nomadic lifestyle as ‘running away’, but escaping into a book, even if you haven’t moved, is just another form of escape. Escape is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from a situation and hide as a form of self-protection. If I’m angry and upset, I sometimes don’t trust myself to be the kind and loving person I would like myself to be. I crawl into my chrysalis and, a novel later, re-emerge as a much nicer human being. Yet you can’t live in a chrysalis and the emergence after an initial escape is essential if the ‘coping’ isn’t going to leave a trail of additional damage.

Reading might, by itself be a good, wholesome activity, so I believe is eating chocolate. No need to point out that there is a limit of how much chocolate I should consume. Sooner or later, if I eat too much, I’ll be sick. Or over a prolonged period I might notice an increase in my waistline. Hence, I don’t gorge on chocolate, I choose a chocolate or two, take care of my choices, limit my intake and focus on quality over quantity. Reading doesn’t make you fat, you might argue. However, an hour reading is a choice to separate yourself from society. You live the lives of other people, fictional or real, or perhaps get advice from world experts who you otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn from, but still, it’s a solitary activity and going to a book for your answers means you aren’t going to the friends and family around you, the real people in your life who might be able to help you in a very real way. They at least have ears to listen with.

Emotional struggles aren’t the only reason I read

My struggle to consolidate the complex emotions that the gods have given me isn’t my only motivation to turn to a book. When I was twenty years old I learnt that there had been this thing called the British Empire. It happened within a few days during an eventful summer: a Ugandan chap, an Egyptian fellow and a guy from Hong Kong provided me with new information which illuminated the depths of my ignorance.

Sometimes you realize that you aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at you. Some people move in a straight line, fulfilling their plans and hitting their goals, driven by ‘what next’. You follow the map, textbooks, management books, leadership, knowledge, wisdom. If, however, you lurch around in a nomadic fashion, crashing into different cultures as you go, you might find that the question ‘what next’ is never answered because you never get beyond the initial ‘why’.

Or to put it another way, one minute I think I’ve got my life organized, the next, soldiers line the streets and to understand why I dive into books. My lack of understanding of my environment hangs awkwardly in my line of sight. I dent my forehead anew on its shiny surface each time I step off a plane.

My learning style suits books. Typically, I’m not an auditory learner, I am terrible at remembering song lyrics for example, but I’m a quick reader and can assimilate the words on the page of a book into concepts to bury into my brain with ease. I might not recall dates or names, but conflict, tension and story I do.

There is a lot I would like to learn.

I cannot explain why I write, but I do know reading is necessary for it

Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ fails at the same question. He’s eloquent in describing what he writes, and he describes the motivations that drive writers to their choices: the ego, aesthetics, historical documentation or political statement. Yet he fails to clarify why the medium has to be the written word. Why journalism and novels rather than paint and brushes? He acknowledges that storytelling exists as something innate inside him… the words revolving around the lonely child’s head twisted and turned until they sprawled out on the page. But why?

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, Why I Write

I can say that writing, regardless of publication or money, matters to me more than almost anything else; I can’t say why. Furthermore, I have that awkward desire that I not only write, but that I write well. I don’t expect perfection from myself, but I do expect something crafted with care and thought through.

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever contemplated improving their writing that to write well it’s necessary to read well.

Of course, my obsession has a downside

It would be fair to say that there are more socially beneficial ways for me to spend my life, there are definitely more economically productive endeavours. Especially when one considers that the majority of my writing revolves around me. Indeed, if we head back to Orwell’s suggestions of what motivates writers to write what they write, I’m steered by my ego’s emotional frustrations with our world.

You could claim that I could be doing something less solitary and more involved with other people if I wasn’t so insistent on writing, but all I can think is that if I didn’t write I wouldn’t know how to process anything and all that evil which builds up inside would erupt. Some people talk about the heart as the place of feeling; I’m convinced that for me it’s the fingertips. My hand curls around the pen or my fingers slam down on the plastic keys. Here are my emotions.

For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.

Isabel Allende, Why I Write

But during this challenging winter, I’m grateful to have so many books to hand

Sometimes I need to escape, sometimes my family needs me to escape so that I’m bearable company, and sometimes I need a sense that I’m learning something, that things are progressing, and that I will come out of this experience with something to show for it.

Hopefully, reading will also help me learn to write better, that ethereal dream.

In which Lina Meruane asks why I read

Explain that to me! Cows? I sighed buying time to think. Cows or oxen or donkeys or idiot peasants or whatever you call those damned animals that almost killed us! They didn’t have lights and they were going very, very slowly through an impossible fog. And wait, joder, I can’t believe it, there ahead of us is a truck right across the road, trying to make a U-turn! Are all Chileans crazy?

Lina Merunae, Seeing Red (Where blind Lina and her non-Chilean boyfriend are driving in the dark heading towards Santiago.)

Sometimes I struggle to articulate what I like or dislike about a book or writing style. I love the act of reading itself, the following of the words on the page, one leading gently to the next in a never-ending stream. Sometimes simply reading is the enjoyment – and consideration of the writer, the style or the story comes secondary to the soothing pleasure of seeing a word and holding its meaning, falling into the next and being swept along.

Reading is safe and reassuring. It’s controlled. When reading, I dictate the velocity of the words flowing into my mind and can vary it just as I choose. I can pause mid-sentence and ponder over a single word, or I can skip whole paragraphs if they get too gruesome or tedious. If I stop liking what I am reading, I close the book.

Inevitably, being addicted to both writing and reading, I end up writing about books

Have you ever noticed how many books are about readers and writers? The less literary inclined are probably underrepresented in literature – but is that a surprise?

Yet, as much as I love to write and love to read, I lack a critical tendency when faced with the final page of a book. On closing the cover, I want to give it (whatever the book is) five-golden-stars.

By the time I’ve reached my computer and started to write, I’m more likely to settle at four, not because my heart doesn’t want to give five, but because you can’t give everything five. Six months later, scanning through the list of books I’ve been reading, I may drop the same book down to three stars, figuring that if I have forgotten it so easily, it can’t have been that memorable. The five-star intoxication tends to belong solely to the reading experience. The critical part of my brain demands a certain writerly wonder to give a book five-stars.

If it’s fiction I need to be mesmerized by the poetic skill or the cleverness of the sentences. Should it be non-fiction, I want to be taught something useful (quotable, inaccurate statistics don’t count). But to give the reading experience five-stars, I simply need to be enthralled.

The opposite happened recently with Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Unsurprisingly the protagonist of the book is a writer. The author in fact started the novel by writing out scenes from her real life and the Protagonist shares her name. I enjoyed the beginning but hated the second half, or perhaps just the last quarter.

I felt betrayed by the protagonist, revolted by the ending and like I’d been caught out being naïve. Yet, it had been a compelling read, so despite its blatant unlikability, I couldn’t totally dismiss it. But the reading experience was at points painful. It made me uncomfortable, so much so that I occasionally skimmed past a paragraph about her eyes… the Spanish title translates most directly as ‘blood in the eye’.

However, I had to admit that I did like the writing

I just wished that the same writer had written a different story (or maybe she had and if so, why couldn’t that have been the translated one). Because I had been hooked. I was pleased to have read it and I loved the way the translator threw in Spanish phrases rather than converting everything to English. (It’s the third book I’ve read by the same translator, Megan McDowell, the other two books both being originally written by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.) Yet why didn’t I like it?

Time passed, and the book, which stared down at me from the shelf, began to grow on me. My eyes would flick up to its spine and I would feel guilty for hating it. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t been just. Maybe the book was truly an excellent book and the problem was me.

As a child, I had a problem with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Not the Victor Hugo version but a tiny hardback children’s Disney version. The book terrified me. Having since grown up, I now have no idea why this one book scared me so much, but I was so perturbed by it that I hid it beneath the floorboards of my parents’ loft.

Obviously, being an adult and full of good sense, I know that books are just books and that they do not sit on shelves watching you. The disquiet within me was not due to the book, it was triggered by the book. The truth was that the book hadn’t been what I’d expected it to be.

The more I read literature by Latin American women, the more I wonder if there isn’t something remarkable that they’re doing with their writing. It feels fearless. Seeing Red is most totally fearless. There was no please-like-me timidity in the book, much like there isn’t in my current read, cheerfully entitled Delirium, and as there wasn’t in Like Water For Chocolate – all notably different styles of story. And Isabelle Allende’s The House of The Spirits isn’t tame either.

As for the Clarice Lispector book I read recently, that book fought against language itself, bending it to its will. No pretence at imitating some stodgy style, nope, dear Clarice had me jaw-dropped before I’d got to the end of the introduction.

Seeing Red haunted me…

…whispering in my ear in a dangerous voice, taunting me with the possibility that what was wrong with the book wasn’t at all a reflection of the book, it was a reflection of me. I started doubting myself and my judgement. I started looking for information on Meruane. Who was the woman behind the book?

I’d set off with an intention to read more Latin American women, but did I really accept what that entailed? Perhaps, I began to realize, reading Latin American women might not be like reading British women with a bit of exotic food and a few different cultural references. It might actually be quite uncomfortable.

Annoyingly, I like to think myself beyond these stereotypes and presumptions, but Meruane elegantly pointed out that I wasn’t. Chile, as always, finds a way to shake out a little more of my ego.

Did I just want to be a literary tourist?

Which is how I found myself leafing through the book again. It’s not that Seeing Red leaps headlong at the scary topics like the dictatorship and the horrors of history that I so often associate with Chilean authors, or that I’m avoiding such topics – Zambra, Skármeta, Bolaño and Lemebel – the men I’ve read who’ve written about that period and its consequences didn’t upset me in the same way (a question here to ponder in its own right). Then again, the women in their stories were often being observed rather than lived through. Lemebel’s beautifully written ‘Queen’ in My Tender Matador was perhaps the real exception and unique.

Seeing Red starts at a party in New York and begins by feeling quite harmless

Which is why I almost didn’t buy the book. I wasn’t looking for another book that talked about the lucky elite going off to study in the United States, I wanted a book that was written about Chile. But finding books written by Chilean women and which have been translated into English is hard work. When my Spanish reading is smoother going, I’ll read in Spanish, but, for now, if I’m going to devour these books it will have to be done in English.

Meruane took on middle-class, educated women (like me) and then threw in the darkness

Seeing Red did not meet with my expectations, but is that not the point of trying to read something different? Has anything so far in my Chilean experience met with my expectations? Are my poor assumptions not continually being bulldozed down? I’d like to think of myself as being quite open-minded, but it’s the walls which keeps giving me a headache.

I became addicted to reading because it was safe and reassuring, a sanctuary to which I could escape. Now that escape clashes with my curiosity. I want to understand a reality that’s not so safe and reassuring. I go looking for a story about Chile, or about Latin America, to get a glimpse into what might be different about those ‘other’ people over there and in the process, I find myself learning who I am.

Lina Meruane has a new book coming out next year, one that is again translated by Megan McDowell… I feel this battle between me and her is incomplete, and so I’m compelled to read it, even if I hate it. Just as I’m compelled to return to Chile, even if that’s hard.

I did, finally, give Seeing Red all those gold stars, feeling that anyone who can so gently tease my ego apart deserves them.

Retreating mindfully

Yoga retreat, North Yorkshire, August 2018

The mother bounces into the living room and declares that Jon Kabat-Zinn thinks we should consider this whole lockdown experience as a ‘mindfulness retreat’.

She says it very sweetly

Parents may often be right, but they’re not always easy to listen to. Historically, my instinctual response might have been to resist such a suggestion. It is easier to reject advice when said in retort, but alas, the mother smiles serenely, speaks softly and then heads off to meditate, leaving me pondering.

Of course, like many people this year – although others may express it differently – I’m feeling a bit like the gods are having a party, got drunk and have lost the plot. They’ve decided to play a game and humanity is losing. I’m stuck with their throws of the dice, hiding against a virus, fighting against myself over the loss of my independence and freedom.

This attitude isn’t going to get me anywhere

If I’m being honest, living here is not a bad deal, especially in the circumstances.

In fact, mid global pandemic, I can’t think of a better place to be. Yet still I feel trapped. Monday looks like Friday looks like Sunday looks like Tuesday and there’s no clear end in sight. I hadn’t planned on being in this continent, and yet, here I am. I’ve no flights booked; no plans made. My calendar is an abyss of empty dates, falling one after another. I don’t like it.

At the beginning of all this I was angry

Now the anger comes and goes, then comes again. A dulled down anger – hot embers. It hurt to have my plans ripped away from me. The loss of my independence has forced me to realize how much my poor ego depends on freedom. This cage of rules gets smaller, then loosens, then tightens and in the middle of it I tell myself: breathe. The mother is right, there is only today. This is a bruise not an amputation. Be positive.

Each day I awake to the same goals

It rains. I go between my bed and my desk carrying my hot water bottle with me. My hands are cold. I type and scribble and eat through books. I curl up in front of the fire and wonder if my mind is coming to an interesting insight or is just blank. There’s time to reflect, to slow down, to reset. If we so choose. Perhaps something in the depths of my brain is churning away.

Luckily, I have that guide in the Mother

With her gentle nudges about awareness, she reminds me that anything other than a good effort from all of us to be mindful of each other is going to land us flat on our faces. So, I go for a walk, do some sun salutations, sit on the bed, legs crossed and meditate. I read Shakespeare and Herman Hesse and Virginia Woolf. I write and edit and write more, there’s a constant productive rhythm to my work, something I’ve been missing for a long time.

Maybe there is something good to come from all this

When, a long time ago I went on a silent mediation retreat, it was at first bewildering, then excruciating, then peaceful. My brain slowed down and old pains started to dissipate. I took the time not to give the depths of my brain the chance to recover.

As I’m stuck here I’m forced to listen to the impulse driving me away

I sometimes take this loss of freedom personally, even knowing that it’s not just me who’s had their wings clipped. Self-pity is the first spiralling step down a pattern of self-obsessive thought. Staying mentally alert, being mindful about how I’m thinking, not feeding the inevitable anxiety or exaggerating the fear is hard work. Hard work worth doing.

I’m left facing myself and the question of how I measure my value

If I do so through numbers, I’ll inevitably fall short. If I compare myself to the original idea of my future that I had back when I left school, I’ve fallen off the page. I have to let go of such measurements, which may be easier for me now, given the disruption my life went through, as I’ve already been forced to disconnect my self-worth from material wealth and other particular assumptions about how I ought to be living.

But perhaps my self-worth shouldn’t be based on my independence either. Maybe the freedom I seek has to be freedom in the mind, not stamps in a passport.

Life won’t begin again after the pandemic has passed; it’s going on right now. The Earth keeps spinning. We keep getting older, day by day. This is the moment to live.

The (questionable) authority of the ‘Should-Be’

No caption needed. Slovenia. August/September 2014.

Once upon a time, getting ready to go out, a dear friend fretted that they didn’t have the right shoes. They didn’t feel that the shoes they did have fitted the occasion. They were inappropriate shoes. Impractical for the weather. Then before I knew it the friend’s whole wardrobe was denounced as unsuitable. It started with fretting about the rain, but before long became a tearful stomping rant which could be summed up as “I have nothing to wear!”

After all, we were going out in public… people will judge.

And people do judge; this is undeniable

Judgement itself isn’t problematic as such, but when it is based on a lack of knowledge and has a brittle nature it’s not helpful. Sometimes, it can be terribly damaging. We form judgements and then defend our judgements and then embroil ourselves in the defence of our defences before we’ve had time to either analytically or emotionally recognize the truths of our original presumption.

Travelling can help you see these judgements

When you live in a foreign country and have an atypical way of approaching the world as I do, you run into people’s presumptions all the time. Sometimes it’s quite funny. European solo women travellers have a bit of a reputation in Latin America and it’s not for liking to curl up in front of the fire in the evening with a good book. Sometimes the same funny can turn dangerous.

Tripping over stereotypes happens all the time and for everyone

Some people though don’t notice that they’re doing it. I had to learn the hard way that it might not be initially apparent that someone is shy rather than (my assumption here) uninterested. Once my insecurity triggers my defences, I’m all ready to confuse uninterested with disapproving. Oops.

Do you approach the person you believe to be shy in the same was as you approach the person who you believe to disapprove of you?

Unlikely.

Instead, can you be generous with your assumptions?

We’re all just people trying to navigate our complex world as best as we can, and cultural and language gaps often lead to an overuse of presumption. Guesswork is used to fill the gaps in our knowledge. When we can recognise the contradiction between the stereotype and the reality, we have better luck navigating. We also find it easier to accept the person who doesn’t submit to the stereotype when we accept the stereotype is just a stereotype.

For me, this can be harder at home

Recognizing the difference between our presumptions and reality is much harder in a familiar context where our judgements have become more concrete and have a deeper foundation. Seeing becomes more difficult because we believe that we know the people we share our lives with. Even with our dearest loved ones, the truth is we only know what we’ve witnessed from the outside when they’ve been in our presence; we’ve witnessed only a small slither of who they are.

If your loved ones no longer surprise you, you’re possibly not actually seeing them. After all, they’re not stationary. They’re continually moving and developing, learning and living. If the people around you have become predictable, maybe you need to find a way of seeing them from a different angle.

Unfortunately, there often comes moments when we live as though our presumptions are fixed in fact without questioning them. We believe we know. We cast judgement. We blame.

And we do it to ourselves too

We are always comparing what we are with what we should be. The should-be is a projection of what we think we ought to be. Contradiction exists when there is comparison, not only with something or somebody, but with what you were yesterday, and hence there is conflict between what has been and what is.

Freedom from the Known, Jiddu Krishnamurti

[I’m reading this book by Krishnamurti as part of a project I’m working on. But his thoughts on the ‘should-be’ and comparison seemed particularly apt.]

We turn the judging upon ourselves and scratch at our identity

My friend, reluctantly, apparently wearing the wrong shoes and the wrong clothes finally left the house, looking dignified and coordinated on the outside, but inside still raging because of the wrong clothes.

On our return, I sat down on the sofa, drank my tea and tried to recall what people were wearing. Could I remember? Was I judging? Did it actually matter what people wore? There was one girl who had worn a blue dress with stars which caught my attention. It had reminded me of the ceilings of Ancient Egyptian tombs where they filled the whole wall as to not give evil the space to hide.

We can all laugh at the idea of not having the ‘right’ thing to wear

But it’s a hollow laugh. Few people, I think, have avoided that uncertainty and fear about stepping out without the right kind of outfit. We all strop from time to time about our appearance.

I suspect that the people who avoid such moments live without having much choice about what they can wear or can afford to buy, and as buying, owning and choosing the ‘right’ outfit is beyond their freedom, they don’t waste energy on the matter. From experience, I know choosing what to wear is considerably easier when you live out of a suitcase – you wear what’s clean. I also know that given a bad enough mood, fears about how I look come back with vengeance.

It’s exhausting

This comparison between what ‘ought to be’ and what ‘is’ leads to an internal conflict that blinds us. We forget self-compassion. We forget to be kind. We forget to simply enjoy ourselves and the body we have. We forget to be grateful that we can afford to clothe ourselves. We forget to act from a place of love.

Why?

Who is saying what ‘ought to be’ and with what authority?

Don’t the cultural norms that dictate the ‘should-be’ have the same origins as the cultural norms that lead to the destruction of the climate, systematically continue racist and sexist behaviours, engage in wars where innocent civilians end up dead and look away from human rights abuses?

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to pause and question such an authority?

Their Chilean constitution / my Chilean education

The majority of the protests were always peaceful. La Serena, Chile, October 2019.

Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

Being British I didn’t grow up with the idea of a constitution in my head. Whilst we have constitutional principles, there is no single rigid document that defines them. We do have some important documents – like the Magna Carta written in 1215 – which state how our countries systems function together, but we don’t have a single quotable text.

As such, the word constitution wasn’t one I’d really considered

It’s possible that prior to going to Chile the word hadn’t passed my lips. I couldn’t spell it. Instead, I was focused on the challenge of voting in the British elections, which, when I left, were only a possibility, but since Britain was bashing its metaphorical head against a wall, seemed likely and did, in December, occur. All I vaguely knew about Chilean politics was that it had previously been a dictatorship but was now a democracy.

It wasn’t the first few days of the protests, when buildings were burning, and we were caged under a military curfew that I became aware of the constitution issue. For the first few days my only real concern was staying safe and working out what was happening on the streets. My phone filled with news and fake news and the media gave a side of the story which grasped the scariest parts but missed the core.

When I went out into the streets though, with a friend who had promised to make sure I got home safe and that we would disappear the moment things became violent, I started to really learn. Of course, leaving the house that afternoon I was scared, in the way a British woman wandering around in a Latin American protest ought to be, but I was also excited.

What’s worth noting here is that I might never have gone if it weren’t for the father

The mother jokes that trying to persuade me to do or not do something will just make me more determined to do it. She fears that if she says ‘don’t go to Colombia’ then I’ll go. In reality, the father did say ‘don’t go to Colombia alone’ and I didn’t, I went to Chile. I rang him and told him what was happening. I didn’t want him to be too alarmed, but I wanted him to have the truth.

The father said, “As your father, I’d prefer you to stay at home, but…”

And so, I left my house and went out to investigate

The people chanted songs I don’t know and words I didn’t understand, but in their hands, I could see placards with words they’d painted on. Pieces of card and board stuck together with words crammed on them. Chilean flags everywhere. Profanities everywhere. Hope.

From amid the crowds I read the words and I tried to understand their meaning

I went home and searched the internet, scavenging for understanding, hunting for clarity, but finding more questions than answers. I learnt that the Chilean democracy was shackled by a constitution written by the dictator Pinochet. My weak Spanish frustrated me; it is always so far behind where I need it to be. Then I downloaded books, fiction and non-fiction, and in those weeks without work I begged my friends for explanations and devoured Chilean literature. Before I started to realize that I would never comprehend entirely and would never solve the sorrow for my borrowed country or my fierce anger at the ridiculousness of it all.

After summer, in the new year, I returned to work determined to use the run up to the plebiscite to ask questions and learn as much as I could from my colleagues and friends. I didn’t want one opinion, I wanted lots of opinions.

Then, instead, the pandemic happened, sending me back to England, to watch from afar

I feared for my friends living under considerably more stressful situations than myself. The loss of incomes, the inadequacy of the health services, the step up in authoritarian control – curfews and restrictions all over the place.

It’s not so strange then that I choose to predominantly teach Chileans when emotionally so much of me remains there. I don’t solely teach Chileans, but the majority of my students are Chilean and almost all of my students live in Chile. With their resilience and fear, their boredom and frustration, they have no idea how much they’re teaching me.

Yesterday, the plebiscite took place

My students described the long queues and the excitement of going to the polls. I worried about violence erupting, as it had done earlier in the week. I hoped though, that each of them would use their democratic right to vote and prayed that they would be heard.

While they were sleeping, I awoke and checked the results. Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Flying. Iceland 2015.

I’ve just got back from Berlin and a friend is curious. What is it like to fly at the moment?

Well the airports are pretty much deserted; the toilets are cleaner than usual and there are many signs and instructions. Wearing a mask is compulsory, as it is in many other locations where you come into close proximity with the public, but security is delightfully much faster to pass through.

Being seated for a couple of hours, my legs ached a bit, and when I finally ‘alighted’ from the train at the end of my journey, I felt relieved to be able to remove my mask. Truthfully though, the familiarity of being on the move and the odd solitary state of flying alone soothed my nomadic need. I was glad to be in the air.

There is a limit to how helpful worrying can be

As analytical thinking creatures, we’re pretty unreliable at recognising the severity and likelihood of the dangers we face. We underestimate and overestimate on a daily basis and all of this effort can be exhausting. To avoid it, we delegate to the media who are financially incentivised to provoke our emotions, and to the government, whose job is to manage the whole of society rather than just us, the individual.

Going with your gut feeling is all very well if your gut feeling has a history of actually being right, and by this I mean actually right, not just all right enough that you could rewrite a storyline to make it feel not so bad. I don’t ignore my gut feeling, going against my stomach’s intuition is generally a bad idea, but nor do I think I should be led by my stomach. If your stomach’s twisting and turning in fretful motion, you probably need to do something (although it might just be something you’ve eaten). You should listen to it. However, that first inclination of how to act may well be wrong.

But from a practical viewpoint, who’s to say that my voyage to Germany is any less safe than spending a day working as a waitress? And who can analyse that with any accuracy, certainly not me.

The siren of warning emanating from your insides is just that, a warning. Your stomach is saying it’s unhappy. Most likely a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken. It doesn’t excuse the analytical mind; it’s a sign that the analytical mind needs to be used. However, the analytical mind is limited and fallible. No wonder we are confused and overwhelmed.

Some people are much more risk averse than others

Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of risk aversion. I’m not the sort to seek high adrenaline adventures just for the sake of it. Yet, I’m sceptical of fear. I want to live my life as I want to, not dictated by unfounded and uncertain fears. This isn’t just the post-trauma effect, it’s part of my character, although perhaps the post-trauma reclamation of life has added to my stubbornness. It’s certainly added to my scepticism.

Sometimes I do things that other people are afraid to do, although perhaps slowly as I build up my confidence, but the conclusion is the same. I’m focused on what I want. I’m not driven by the adrenaline, I’m driven by my curiosity, but often fulfilling one’s curiosity comes at a price. It asks that you dare.

Not daring has huge consequences

When I arrived in Berlin and stepped out of the airport into the cold, grey of cityscape autumn I felt lighter. I’d been stabbed in the throat with a cotton bud by a chap in a plastic gown, and I’d rubbed excessive hand sanitizing gel into the crevices of my hands, but I’d arrived. I breathed in the German air and relished in the selfish choice I’d made. It brought me a sense of glee.

It’s really difficult to decide what is best for us, the individual

We face a whole lot of confused messaged and contradictory thoughts, suggested to us by governments and news agencies who focus on their needs to manipulate the population as a whole. Nobody is quite sure what behaviour counts as dangerous. Some people flaunt the rules on masks or mixing households and some don’t leave the house. The psychological cost, being invisible and uncountable, is generally feared, but ignored within the risk assessment.

For me personally, the psychological threat is the one with my attention

It’s a danger I know from up close. When I look at my friends, I’m looking for the light of life in their eyes. I’m listening to the threads of negativity and I worry. I worry about the effect of a general reduction in laughter over the year. The lack of excitement about future plans and the dent in ambitions. It’s all rather saddening.

Psychologically, letting myself unfurl my wings for a brief moment was a precious balm. When I booked the flight, I had no idea whether regulations would let me fly or whether the aeroplane would even take off, but I felt it was worth the risk. Travelling is part of who I am.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Yes, I’d go as far as saying that actually I enjoyed it. But I can assure you washed my hands thoroughly when I disembarked.

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.

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…

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.