Resilience and holding out

Inka walls, Peru, January 2020
Inka walls, near Cusco, Peru, January 2020

I heard the kettle begin to boil and as I battered my way into consciousness tried to recall where I was, somewhere south of Santiago I thought, but the letters of the name of the town were shuffling around in my mind and I couldn’t focus on the word. I heard the Mother, I knew it was the Mother, and I tried to connect the dots… I struggled, the name of the town seemed important somehow and my mum was there.

What was the Mother doing there?

Surprised, I realized that I was in my parents’ house, which is not south of Santiago in Chile, but in Yorkshire in England. I remembered it was winter. How had I forgotten? Maybe the sun was shining in my dreams. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and not immediately know which city I’m in. But now? Here? I am not just passing through; I’ve been here since May. The kettle finished its boil and I fell back asleep, dreaming now of cheese and pickle sandwiches.

This time last year it was hot

I wandered the streets of Santiago hiding in the shade during the midday heat and always carrying my flask filled with cold water. Last year was a year of two summers, the first was wondrous, the second a constant downpour. Bless England, it knows how to do wet. This year, if I’m lucky, will be a year of two winters, or perhaps I will winter it out here and move into the land of eternal spring. It’s now out of my control.

Some years ago, I read Victor Frankl’s book on surviving the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it’s been that book which has frequently popped into my mind as lockdowns are announced, reduced, increased, reduced again. There is good news and bad news, and both hope and fear, but attaching ourselves too strongly to any date or announcement doesn’t serve us well. A new quarantine is announced but we mustn’t despair. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, who was a psychologist observed that the people who started out positively with the belief that things would be over, and they’d be freed within a matter of months, before Christmas, invariably were less likely to survive. Once Christmas had come and gone, their resilience crumbled.

We just have to hold out until…

The people who, however, had something or someone external to themselves to live for were much more resilient. I have to go back to Chile because I’ve left my coffee pot there. I have to go back to Chile because I owe a friend a hug. I have to go back to Chile because I’m owed a drink. It seems it’s easier to be resilient for a purpose beyond yourself, and when monotony takes hold, where we might not be sure of what day of the week we’re on, having that external purpose matters even more.

For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl

You have to let it happen, but you can’t just expect it to happen

When I was in Germany in the autumn, my dear friend, the Glass-blower, suggested that each day we ought to do something for our future selves. This could be something as simple as saving a little money for a rainy day* or it could be an act of studying or learning something that would better equip us to take advantage of future opportunities. A lot of my motivation for doing yoga comes from my desire to have a physically capable body at the point in the future when I can make use of it. Maybe I’m going nowhere today, but on some tomorrow I want to go hiking in some hills and smell the nature all around me.

Today, therefore, I roll out my yoga mat and put the time in

A lot of resilience I think comes from switching the mind from thinking about the ‘done’ to thinking about the ‘doing’. What am I doing today to look after myself? What am I doing to protect myself? What am I doing to grow? It’s not a counting game. There can be no comparison with either yourself or another individual. Measurement is irrelevant because it’s all about how you think and how you perceive your situation. Are you doing what you need to be doing?

The sun may be shining in my dreams, and elsewhere it may be summer, but here it’s winter and time to get up and have breakfast. The Mother’s making porridge.


* In a country where almost every day is rainy, isn’t this a stupid idiom?

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?

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.

On Solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, meanwhile, the rain continues to fall.

Orichette pasta and other solutions

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

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

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

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

This is because my parents are the best

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took me hours

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

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

My problem is often boredom

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

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

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

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

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