The other day, I had a long drive. Not so unusual in general, but unusual enough at the moment that I had to plan my journey. For once, I asked my phone to instruct me, only realizing that it was going to do so in Spanish once I was pulling out of the estate. I had my flask with my tea beside me, the bag of dried apricots to nibble on if needed and could have, if I’d wanted, listened to the radio, a podcast or some music. Instead, I chose to limit myself to the rattle and hum of the car.
When it’s overwhelmed, my brain doesn’t work very well. I find filtering hard. I’m not a natural multitasker. If I try to do anything but cook, the pasta boils over and the onions burn. I like my work – the way I teach is focused and intensive and then done – but thoughts linger, phrases get stuck in my mind. I wonder about dictionary definitions and mouth phonemes as I walk down the hallway and inevitably continue analysing my speech as I step into the next task or sit down for tea.
Overwhelmed me is not a helpful me. Overwhelmed my thoughts are likely to travel inwards. My temper is likely to be shortened. Hence it seems worth making an effort to avoid the point of overwhelm. I would love to be well-informed about what is going on in the world, but all the news stories competing for attention flood my brain with thoughts. Whilst I understand my brain to be an excellent sieve, I also know that if you’re dealing with a lot of flour, you’re better adding it a bit at a time.
The rattle and hum of my thoughts kept me company. To my surprise, I didn’t have any trouble with the Spanish instructions, thanks possibly to my practice navigating a friend around Murcia I did back when I was first learning the language. The standard Spanish voice lacked warmth, but robots aren’t known for their tenderness. I would have felt the same about the English no doubt.
Simplification seems to be my answer to most problems right now. I can’t deal with a complex life. I don’t want to be juggling things all of the time. I want things to be structured and organised. I don’t want to have to go searching for the things I’ve mislaid. I need to know where to find old documents and details. I’m constantly sorting through things, paring back my belongings, limiting my purchases with the exception of books. Thinking ahead.
But this all takes time, and it takes thought. And for my brain to work it needs sufficient quiet. Just the rattle and hum of life trundling along.
My grandfather asks if I am learning anything. I laugh. Of course I’m learning things, it’s just, I have to admit, that there’s a rather chaotic progression to my learning. For example, I know much more about mining and fish than I did a year ago – I know the words comminuation and leaching and that it’s better to buy trout that salmon because trout are more resilient and therefore their little bodies aren’t flooded with antibodies. And I review presentations and research papers in fields that I’ve got no basis in. I look through email correspondence and brochures. I immerse myself in texts that I would not naturally come across and find myself learning what I had never expected to learn.
This cross-pollination is an amazing thing. My comprehension of life as a whole widens. A Venezuelan friend unexpectedly explains to me 20th century European history. An English friend discusses the English (British I suppose) civil war. A student recounts their experience of meeting an author I’ve just read. I’m taught about bitcoin. I try to explain it to my grandfather – people pay me to listen to them speak about their expertise.
This is the beauty of my work, and of my lifestyle – even my deep in lockdown lifestyle. I don’t mean the money; I mean that people generally seem enthusiastic to educate me. They seem to identify a value in filling the gaps in my education. And my education is like a sieve.
I ask people to explain political movements, policies I don’t understand, and I do so, knowing full well that were all my students in a room together they would not agree. I position them as the teacher, me as the learner, and I interrupt to ask questions and suggest their sentence would work better with a subject, a different tense, an alteration of the pronunciation. I push, prompt and pester until my students look at me with those eyes that say, Catherine I’m trying to educate you about something important here.
I am desperate to travel again. I’m desperate to walk unknown streets, to people watch, to feel totally foreign and awkward and feel the crumpling of my cultural expectations as I try to fit myself into a new environment. I want to realise I’m in the wrong, feel my assumptions shatter, watch as from my discomfort I desperately delve into the depths of what I know to make a bridge, a link, a connection to some of the seven billion people on this planet who are not me.
I love this quote. It comes from the Ndebele tribe in the north-eastern part of South Africa and was quoted by Bryce Courtenay in his story in the Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction travel writing collection.
Courtenay goes onto explain that ‘Translated, this simply means that we only recognize and get to know ourselves, who and what we are and may become, by the presence, experiences and observations of other people.’
The other night, my father poured me a glass of whisky
And amid a longer conversation, he expressed his discomfort with correcting my writing, and I found myself wanting to laugh at him. Because of my work, I find myself constantly providing corrections to people’s language. I have done a fair amount of red penning my father’s texts. Heavy-handedly. I tend to ignore his ego and get on with stating my thoughts. If he’s asked me for my opinion, then I’m going to give him it. Obviously, there’s a difference between criticizing and providing constructive criticism and I wouldn’t want him to feel that a criticism of his word choice was a criticism of him. Sometimes, of course, we get a bit defensive and blur the distinction between the criticism of our work and ourselves. This isn’t unusual. Some people aren’t ready to receive criticism of their work because they have confused the two and need to first develop better recognition of the value of themselves before they can embrace feedback. Sometimes in teaching, corrections are ignored because accuracy isn’t the imminent goal. There are times when, as a teacher, I will encourage a student to keep producing language regardless of its accuracy because they need to build confidence and get used to the sound of their own voice.
When my father expressed his discomfort at correcting my writing, I smiled at him and tried to explain that his feedback (even when it was negative) was valuable to me. I wasn’t going to be offended because he points out I’ve used a word entirely wrongly or that my sentence doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to hold it against him if he provides criticism constructively.
What doesn’t work is a vague adjective describing what isn’t likeable about my personality, anything that comes from a place of defence rather than care, anything that comes from a place of jealousy – and pointing out my spots. That much I’m sure of. Some cultures are more direct about feedback, others create indirect ways of getting the message across, but we have to get feedback from each other to grow. Imagine a student whose teacher never provides feedback. How much are they ever going to learn? How well are they going to be motivated?
People are people because of other people
We grow and learn who we are through the interactions we have with the people around us. We need people to learn from and understand ourselves through. Other people show us who we are, and I’m a firm believer in the value of being self-aware.
We all wondered what the Mother would do when she retired, but none of us imagined that she would become an exercise fanatic. It was inevitable that she would become a fanatic of something, she isn’t someone to do things by halves, but exercise… It’s not that the Mother didn’t exercise, she used to cycle to work every day, but it wasn’t an obsession like it is now.
I am very grateful for the Mother’s current enthusiasm. If I lived alone, or with just my father, I would probably be a lot less fit than I currently am. It’s not my great self-discipline. It’s not my immense will-power. Nope, it’s down to the presence of the ever-yogaing Mother.
By the time I wake up in the morning, she has done three yoga routines
This is because instead of occasionally changing up her routine, the Mother merely adds to it. She started, reluctantly, with a single yoga class when she was still working a normal everyday kind of job, in a normal fashion, as normal people who get advised to strengthen their body or tackle their inflexibility or posture… and then time passed until now, in lock-down, she has become an index of yoga classes and other Eastern traditions.
I have this great idea that one day I am going to wake up energetically and do ten sun salutations as I used to when I lived in Spain, and it rarely ever happens. But I mention it to the Mother and lo and behold, she does them. When I mention them again three months later, she’s still diligently doing them.
It’s very important to not constantly compare oneself to other people
We all have different bodies. We have different skills and abilities and strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes though, I look at the Mother and instead of thinking ‘I hope I’m in as good a shape as you when I’m your age’, I think ‘why can’t I do that?’ as sometimes I’m the one on my knees in a plank arriving to it late and leaving it early, while she’s holding a beautiful full plank, looking the picture of serenity.
But I am seriously grateful that she’s there, enthusiastically suggesting more videos to do and coming up with stretches and activities that I find myself doing, and therefore find myself becoming capable of.
At the age of 12, I couldn’t touch my toes
And I mean by some considerable distance. But under the Mother’s influence, I can sometimes get my hands flat on the floor. That’s with my legs straight. It’s amazing what you can change with a huge amount of persistence (or a mother like mine).
I might drive the Father mad with all my constant talk about sitting up straight, elbows off the table and can I please have a cake fork? He’s doing remarkably well given the circumstances; I cannot be an easy person to live with. I will most likely become one of those elderly folks who, having seen things and done things, have stubbornly decided that they know best. Although, I figure if our biggest arguments are about the butter knife, maybe with all these months of confinement in these walls, we’re doing pretty well.
I guess most readers will agree with the Father that the butter knife is not an essential implement and its use does not make our lives measurably better. I accept that my preference for the old-fashioned method for avoiding crumbs and jam in the butter dish is unpopular. The Midget probably doesn’t get why we’d use a butter dish, and I’m guessing she would hold the majority view on the matter.
I am similarly obsessive about posture
It’s not that I have perfect posture, far from it, I have somewhat flat feet, am pigeon-toed, a little knocked knee-ed, have a lordotic tilt to my pelvis which exaggerates the curvature of my spine, in addition to its minor curve of scoliosis, oh and my head tilts to the left. In other words, I’m pretty normal for a human being. I’m just a human being who has been measured and advised and told I was doing it wrong, then further confused and unexpectedly educated. Most of the postural education came from my Chilean yoga teacher who instructed me how to stand, but a significant proportion has come from the Mother who is nearly as obsessive as me.
I think that bad posture gives me migraines
The tension mounts in the back of my neck and shoulders and then bursts out in the form of pain in my forehead. Bad posture makes me feel tired. It’s a vicious loop, the more tired I am, the more I slouch and the more I slouch the more tired I feel. Bad posture feeds bad posture, ingraining it as habits, over-exerting some muscles while letting others get away with doing nothing and therefore cementing an in-balance.
I don’t know at what point I really understood that so much sitting down, desk work and a sedentary lifestyle was bad for my body and its posture. It’s knowledge I assume I have known forever, although obviously this isn’t true. It’s now embedded in our modern societies collective knowledge bank. We know things are bad for us and do them anyway because it’s what everyone does and doing differently would be hard work. Although I knew it and I complained occasionally about it, I did very little about it.
I sit down to write; not writing isn’t an option
Plus, when I was working part-time teaching, I was prancing about classrooms with occasional histrionic re-enaction of Guy Fawkes falling off the gallows which kept me moving. Already conscious of how I stood and making an effort to not slouch so much, I vainly felt my posture to be better than the average anyway.
The pandemic happened
I returned to my desk, hunched my shoulders and slumped. Sometime in the autumn, however, I had a bit of an awakening. One evening, the Father, wanting to talk about video quality, pulled up a remastered video of a streetcar trundling along the main street in San Francisco, filmed in 1906. I was surprised at the incredible amount of advertising along the street, in my imagination such advertising shouldn’t have existed in such ancient times, but I had been to Herculaneum and there you can see the evidence of old Roman advertisements painted on the walls, so I should have known better.
Mostly though, I stared at how people stood
They stood so straight that they looked like they had splints on their spines. I hadn’t known that a crowd could all be so upright, that people could run so elegantly and dart so graciously across the road between the horses and the trams.
Today my posture may be considered reasonable but take me back a hundred years, and they’d think I had some serious medical issues. I realized, in thinking about what my posture should be, I was comparing myself to the wrong groups of people. Of course, mine although not exactly an ‘unpopular opinion’ is an opinion that many people take decisive action on. They may supplement their day with a few stretches or take an occasional call while standing up instead of sitting down at their desk, but these are minor adjustments with minor impact.
A little is better than nothing.
Which takes me onto Paulo Coelho’s Like the Flowing River
Reading this book, I was amused to find an essay entitled On Elegance which spoke straight to me and my cake-fork-loving, posture-obsessive self.
Elegance is usually confused with superficiality and fashion. That is a grave mistake. Human beings should be elegant in their actions and their posture, because the word is synonymous with good taste, graciousness, balance and harmony.
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
Does moving in an elegant fashion not make you feel better about yourself and your body?
And please do not confuse it with arrogance or snobbery. Elegance is the right posture to make our every gesture perfect, our steps firm, and to give due respect to our fellow men and women.
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
I think it comes down to respect and dignity
How you carry yourself matters. My posture is a symbol of my self-respect and my sense of inner dignity. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I value it so dearly, I have had to work hard to repair the relationship between my mind and my body. Fundamentally, it’s what all the therapy came down to… Was I caring for my body? Was I showing myself respect? With all I’ve learnt, I’m led to believe that if you stand up straight and move with grace then it’s much easier for all those difficult things like setting boundaries and staying true to yourself to fall into place.
This text was written and edited at a standing desk.
Small talk: the poor thing’s got a poor reputation despite being a vital part of our social dynamics. It gets classified along with gossip which doesn’t do it much good. After all, small talk doesn’t necessarily mean unkind whispers behind someone else’s back, nor even the more well-intentioned rather preachy words said because we care, but because we also have a sense of self-righteousness, and well… she did bring it on herself, didn’t she? If only she hadn’t…
A distinction must be made.
I’m not sure gossip adds value to our lives, but I’m pretty sure small talk is essential to them. Conversations typically begin with small talk.
If you don’t believe me, imagine this situation. You’re the language assistant in a big university, who started work a few weeks into the term. It’s your second day of work. You enter the staff room uncertain of where to sit. Nobody looks up at you because people are correcting their students’ assignments, preparing their classes or deep in conversations which you feel to listen to would be to infringe on their privacy.
Someone looks up, says hello, asks how you are
If you can’t do small talk, if you can’t navigate the social signals which are so often conveyed by these seemingly meaningless words, you don’t get as far as the more meaningful conversation that we all need to feel properly listened to.
Here’s an experiment
Think of a few different people you know and consider who among these people seem the most comfortable around strangers. Now when you meet* each of these people, note how long it takes before they ask a direct small talk question about you and your life. Do they comment on the weather or some common knowledge? Maybe it’s something simple like how are your parents/children, or what are you doing for the holidays. It’s a ‘safe’ question with no particular transactional purpose.
People who don’t find social interaction all that easy often take a long time to ask these questions and when they do ask these questions feel hellishly awkward about doing so, like they’re aware they’ve missed the beat of the conversation where the question might normally be asked and now don’t quite know how to the rescue the situation. Sometimes they suddenly become aware that they’ve been conducting a monologue for a while and then don’t know how to rebalance the conversation. These same people might love silence within their intimate relationships, but find it excruciating elsewhere. They may spend the conversation thinking about themselves either because they’re feeling a tad awkward or they’re busy answering the other person’s questions and focusing on what to say next.
Small talk, can be really hard but without it, how do we go from meeting for the first time to becoming friends?
I think that sometimes we develop idiosyncratic small talk repertoires
Being English, mine involves the weather. One student, after asking me three times a week at the beginning of each class, ‘how are you?’ commented: When I ask how you are, you always reply by telling me what the weather is. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I use the weather as a technique for moving the conversation on.
“How are you?”
“I’m okay, how are you?”
“Fine, but it’s been raining all day and the sky is so grey.”
Some people can manage this small talk business with ease, but then get stuck in it
If I’m spending an hour on the phone to someone, I’d rather have a conversation that branches into the emotional, the ethical dilemmas, the political, scientific, historical causes and consequences. I love discussing society as a concept because I struggle to understand it. I want to understand your discomfort with your own ideologies because I’m learning to critique my own. And I want the conversation where you wrestle with your own beliefs because it forces me to wrestle with mine. And, thanks to my lifestyle and my work, I get the opportunity to have lots of such conversations.
But occasionally someone mentions to me how such a conversation can be difficult to get into. They become fed up with small talk or talking about meaningless matters because they seem to go on and on in a circle. They don’t want to offend (small talk is entirely about social bonding) but their intellects aren’t being stimulated. Then they get bored and don’t know how to take the conversation forward.
I have found this happening to me more often during lockdown because there is such monotony to the day and so little that is new. There is only so much conversation about grammar my parents can stomach.
I can feel it happen sometimes in class
If I have a new, intermediate level student then there is a pause somewhere in the second or third conversation class where we have exhausted the small talk that they are comfortable with, and rather than skim across a subject we need to switch to going deeper into a subject. It’s the point where I switch to trying to entice the student to tell me a story. Tell me more? But why? How come? Maybe a few classes later, we might hit on something that they deeply care about. A sense of emotion colours their stories. Their grammar slips, and they might physically seem to shake off the bounds of grammar because they’re determined now to make their point or tell their story. They lean forward and repeat phrases, this is the point that the student becomes the teacher. What we’re talking about is more important to them than the English. My job is to subtly prompt the correct grammar and supplement their vocabulary as is needed without upsetting their flow of thought. It’s a challenge I adore.
In a class, I have the power to push for more depth because I’m the teacher, and they have the power to say no because they’re paying. In a purely social environment, it can be trickier. When you’ve landed in a different culture and don’t have a huge amount of background knowledge, it can be terrifying knowing whether you can ask a question or not. You may make assumptions which then cause you embarrassment – like making a joke about marriage to the couple you’re living with… who it turns out might have two children and religious parents, but who aren’t themselves married. Or you might not dare make any assumptions whatsoever because you’re frightened of putting your foot in it. That said, in a foreign culture, you’re also afforded a tad more forgiveness when you get it wrong.
Small talk builds the relationship
But at some point, you need to ask the question that takes things a little deeper. On this topic, a friend of mine recently defined deep as having an emotional aspect. This makes it a dangerous step. Take for example the middle-aged man who wants to criticize feminism without causing offence, or the person who wants to make the connection between social inequality and race and just as they are about to state something about skin tones realizes, they don’t know the ‘right’ words.
It’s me, every time I open my mouth on the subject of colonialism. It’s the question of the impact of scientific inquiry and tourism in the area where a total solar eclipse is visible, an area which happens to be the indigenous heartland and the indigenous peoples believe fiercely that such a wonder represents a time for deep silence.
Sometimes, the beginning of this unravelling is to show my confusion and discomfort. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I’m trying to. It’s to position myself as curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. Nobody is going to tell me anything if they don’t feel both safe and listened to.
“I can see that a three-pence rise in a metro fare is really important to people here, but I don’t get why.”
“Because it’s not about three pence, it’s about a history of aggressive social inequality…”
If you don’t dare ask the hard questions, you don’t get to see beneath the surface.