Very soon I am going to fly a quarter of the way around the world to Chile, where, for the next year I shall be teaching English. I am, if we are being mild with our words, overwhelmed. It’s not going to Chile that’s overwhelming. Nor is it the idea of teaching. Culture shock I’m sure is awaiting me at passport control but I’ve taught English before and this isn’t my first time living abroad. No, what’s got me overwhelmed this time is the haste with which I’ve been living this last two months.
It’s the travel up and down the country and the suddenness at which things seem to happen. Then, add to this, seeing people I haven’t seen in a long while and trying ever so hard to make those moments count, maybe too hard sometimes. How inevitable it is that my brain feels like mashed potato.
I was going to spend this week being calm, writing, reading and painting. That didn’t quite work out because with less than 48 hours of notice I had an appointment in London on the seventh floor of the Chilean Embassy. The lift was broken. They play Classic FM in the lobby where you wait for your documents to be processed. A couple of Americans were also waiting for their documents. At one point, the young man sat upright in his chair with a suddenness that made the rest of the room turn.
“Is that… Is that our national anthem?” he asked.
The woman beside him frowned and shook her head.
I thought no, that’s the music to Indiana Jones.
I walked away with an inky thumb, a visa and a selection of important-looking documents. I crossed the road and lay down on the green grass of St James’ Park with my packed lunch.
There was a black swan with tiny cygnets in the water, which seems a bit late to me, but I’m no swan breeding expert. I thought back to the pheasant who visits us at home, sadly she’s lost all her babies, and to the cygnets that we used to count every time we walked around the lake near the house where I once used to live when I was smaller and more naïve. It’s these wandering, winding thoughts that I feel have been absent from my mind recently. Perhaps I’ve been focused on what needs to get done and lacking in time spent staring, watching the world around me flutter by.
I guess I’m stressed, but saying I’m stressed feels like an excuse. I keep hearing myself implore that I’m tired. I am tired but whenever I hear the words escape my mouth, I find myself thinking back to the predictable conversation in the office kitchen, back in that distant past when I had a desk job.
How are you?
I’m not that sort of tired. I’m not tired of my day to day, nor the people in my life. I’m not lacking enthusiasm. No. I guess it’s more like my fans are overheating. Is there a word for that?
It is not unusual to hear that there has been some sort of problem with a child at school. These students weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They aren’t hand-held. They are discovering how to get on within society by trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.
Occasionally though, a story you hear doesn’t seem to fit.
One morning I found myself sitting chatting with a teenager, practising exam questions. Her English was smooth, her answers grammatically intact, she had a clean face, her hair neatly brushed. The sort of student you don’t worry about.
But behind the scenes I knew that her story was more complex
That week she’d brandished a kitchen knife at her mother.
Because her mother had tried to take her phone away from her.
At first I couldn’t believe it
But then I began noticing how frequently the students were touching their phones in class. How when they were straining to find the vocabulary to speak with me, beneath the desk they were caressing their phones like a comfort blanket.
In our heads we might think, how can a child be addicted to her phone, but in our hearts we know a deeper truth. As a society we’re more dependent on our phones than we would like.
When we’re happy, when life is going well, this phone-reliance doesn’t necessarily strike us as a problem
It might strike us as annoying when conversations with friends get derailed by a bleep or a flash, and sometimes we find that more time has slid by than we intended, but by and large we’re just doing as everyone else around us seems to be. It all seems pretty normal.
But life isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. There are days when the phone feels like an anchor, and we are terrified of drifting away. Fingers flick across the screen as if it were an activity as necessary as breathing. We’re seeking out notifications, a moment of acknowledgment of our existence, and a balm for the discomfort of reality.
This article will talk about two techniques I started using when I was in therapy, and one used by my sister.
I love writing and so writing was always going to be a big part of my therapy
Recording how I was feeling, finding words to express the inexpressible, pounding the keys and seeing the words appear on the screen, all this gave me a sense of being me again. But it was touch and go at one point, because beside my keyboard I would place my phone.
My desk is one of those beautiful green-leather topped creations
I rescued it from a junk shop in Wales, telling the man that if he could fit it in my car I would buy it from him. He grinned. Of course the desk would fit. The two legs, thick blocks of ornate wooden drawers detach from the surface, making it easy to slide straight into my car.
It was these drawers, the top ones which are lockable, which I turned to when my mind was a mess. My technique was not complex. All I did was move my phone from resting on the green leather surface to laying in a drawer amongst my papers.
This created a barrier
And the barrier made me think, it made me realize how frequently I was reaching out to my phone. It didn’t stop me looking, but it made me more aware of how often I actually did so. Which made me see how ridiculous I was being, and so, slowly, I stopped.
And began to write more.
But not everyone is trying to create more writing space
My sister doesn’t write in the same obsessive manner as I do. And so the technique she has taken up is slightly different. I visited her for Christmas and was astounded to see a large ball of white wool squished between the sofa cushions.
“My psychotherapist suggested I find something to do with my hands,” she explained
I could understand this. She’s always been a fidgeter, tapping surfaces, wobbling tables, tearing serviettes into tiny pieces. And touching her phone had taken a similar role. Like drumming her fingers on the dining-room table, her constant phone use had become rather anti-social, but unlike tapping her fingers, her phone was just making her feel more and more anxious, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more addictive.
Knitting seems to have stepped into this role
At Christmas, she was simply working on white squares. White was the colour wool she’d found, a remnant of when the Nonna taught us both to knit as children, but since then the Mother has provided her with different colours, and my sister has developed her squares to include different stitches.
It’s a simple way that she keeps her hands busy in the evenings. She doesn’t, after all, want to lose count.
But what do we do about the bleeping screams of our phones?
My second technique (the third in this article), and the one that felt more ruthless, involved saying no to notifications. At first this felt like something rather rude. As my life is moving from solely revolving around being my mother’s poorly child to an independent adult I am having to be a little more lenient in some respects, but in general I don’t have a half-hearted approach for notifications.
I want to choose when you’re allowed to interrupt me.
So I went into the app notifications part of my phone settings and turned off everything
If an email arrives, nothing happens. If someone comments on an Instagram post, the first I will know about it is when I open up Instagram. And if you have me on WhatsApp, unless I would consider myself one of your emergency contacts (i.e. you are my sister), you can assume that you are muted.
Basically, the only people likely to ever get an instantaneous response are my parents and my sister. If we have plans in the next day or two I might unmute you, temporarily. But otherwise my phone behaves as if I had no friends whatsoever.
Now I have a boss and a few clients, I occasionally make a few additional exceptions. When a lesson is cancelled I do want to know. But in general I still stick to my approach of limiting instantaneousness to the moments when I’m the one choosing to chat.
Maybe this lack of availability strikes you as crazy or selfish
Or worse, like I’m avoiding life, running away from people who just want to chat. But this is not the case. This technique allows me to have bigger, substantial chunks of time which I can dedicate to the people I love in a meaningful manner. Instead of a constant pattering back and forth I tend to invite my friends to come visit me, schedule video calls and write longer more in-depth emails.
I have many friends at home with whom I want to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship, but I don’t need to know what they’re doing today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I need to clear time in my diary for them, and then I need to live my life so that when we do talk, I have something worthwhile to say.
You might imagine that ignoring people upsets them
But I actually get more people apologizing for pestering me than complaining that I’m ignoring them. And those people who do complain that I’m ignoring them, or not being a very good friend… well I start to question how healthy our relationship actually is.
These are just three tiny techniques
But by using an array of tiny techniques we can start to build a better relationship with our phones.
But where does that leave our knife wielding teenager?
We can’t know. I cross my fingers and hope that someone in her life will demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with technology to her, and in the meantime, her dependence will be treated with kindness and as the serious addiction, the illness, that it has become.
So what can you do today?
Get mindful about who’s watching how you use your phone. Are you setting a good example, or do you need to experiment with some of these techniques?
I have a delusion in my mind that life will somehow become a
little simpler. It is a delusion because life does not unfold that way. Each
crease brings out a more nuanced view of the world. Every person you meet
complicates matters. You realize that you are more than you thought, and less
than you thought, and that these two, logically contradictory thoughts are
When you are child existence is only that which you can see and feel
The idea that your parents might have another life outside of you is something that creeps upon you slowly. At some point I realized that the Mother was a nurse, which was good because nurses are good, that she looked after poorly children, which is also good because looking after poorly children is good. And then, sometime a little later, these thoughts coalesced in my brain and I realized that there were other children in the Mother’s life, children who were not me or my sister, and I was jealous.
At first such a jealousy is acute. However, as time passes, whilst
it remains, and will most likely always remain, it merges into something else. My mummy is a nurse. She looks after poorly
children. The words circulate and embed themselves. Jealousy meets pride
and the two emotions, which at first seem to point in opposite directions – I both
want my mummy to be saving these poorly children and I really don’t want to
share her – collide. More emotions build up, I am simultaneously happy and sad
about the Mother’s other existence.
In conversations, the deep moving ones, the ones that put a
course correction on our lives we often walk smack bang into these
contradictions. For example, you find yourself listening to someone relaying
something that it difficult to hear and whilst you are terribly uncomfortable
with the listening, you appreciate being the chosen one who is trusted enough
Hearing great stories of resilience, humbly told, we realize how small our own achievements really are
Just this week I felt the shock hit through my chest as I reflected upon a recent conversation. I pride myself on my resilience, my insistence on loving my life, my determination to appreciate and be grateful for that which I have. The sensation that I felt in my chest, the shock, reminded me how many other, incredibly resilient people there are out there who don’t have things as easy as I do, who don’t have the same levels of support around them, who don’t have a strong foundation of a loving family, who have no anchor, but at the same time are carrying much heavier responsibilities.
And yet, at the same time, that conversation was a dialogue
not a monologue. I had earnt that conversation by being me, by trusting, by
listening, by being open to a reality that is not so splendidly shiny as we
sometimes imagine life should be.
Occasionally someone walks through my life and in the
process of assimilating their story, which is not just a moment of listening,
but involves deeper reflection and awareness, I am changed. Conversation redirect
my thinking. It’s a two-way game. Being heard gives me the confidence to take a
step forward. Listening teaches me where to take that step.
A friend who listens reflects my voice back towards me
The more people we encounter and converse with like this, the more stories we immerse ourselves in, the more complex our vision of the world becomes. Through such challenging conversation we can, if we chose, begin to learn what we sound like. It’s not always easy listening. I frequently get the difficult things wrong and have to adjust the acoustics. Time and time again I say the wrong things in the wrong moments, but I know that if I keep adjusting, keep subduing the need to defend myself from every uncertain whisper, then I learn. If you are lucky, you spend your life adjusting the acoustics of you own voice.
I was tidying up Christmas decorations in my grandparents house when I reached into a large plastic box, the sort my grandparents store baubles in eleven months of the year, up in the roof. And ouch. My finger hurt. Sharp pricks in my skin. A brush with something sharp.
I peered inside the box for a better look, and discovered,
to my astonishment, a cactus.
Round, pale green and spiky, I carefully picked it up and
showed it to the Grandmother
She wasn’t at all surprised. She knew there was a cactus in the box. She had already stuck her hand in and pricked herself that morning. And then she’d done nothing about it. She was mildly amused that the cactus had survived what she assumed was a full twelve months in the box, but otherwise unperturbed by the situation.
Personally I think she should have been more bothered, bothered enough not to leave it in the box with the baubles waiting for the next poor soul to reach inside.
“Put it in the bin,” the Grandmother said.
So, as a dutiful granddaughter, I placed the cactus by the
A short while later I heard a commotion in the kitchen as the Grandfather discovered the cactus and decided to investigate. It was, he claimed, very much alive. Just in need of replanting.
The Grandmother insisted that the cactus be binned.
A short while later the Grandfather was seen trying to find a home on one of the overcrowded windowsills in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house, a room filled with more plastic boxes, bags, cardboard and evidence of Christmas. The Grandmother, well, she was heard to be rather disparaging about his efforts.
Tensions were rising.
Which is when, as the dutiful granddaughter, I stepped in
and volunteered to rehome the cactus. Now obviously, you can’t take a cactus in
your hand luggage to Spain… so I wonder how it’s going to appreciate the care
of its new warden… the Mother.
I’ve been in England a week and I remain somewhat disorientated.
Writing this, I sit at my desk. It’s an old-fashioned, green-leather
topped desk with drawers (some of which lock) and the scars of a life spent
existing full of things. It has history. I acquired it from a junk shop in the
middle of a public carpark in some small unpronounceable Welsh town. It’s lived
in four different houses under my ownership alone. And, whilst I admit that it’s
not the ideal shape for perfect ergonomics, it makes up for it by being psychologically
wonderful. It feels like a desk where one writes. It’s a comforting presence.
Something sturdy and reliable. Homely.
A week ago, I was sweating as I dragged my tiny suitcase into the Spanish airport
I wore coat and a scarf over the layers I imagined would be necessary in such a cold country as England. The sky outside was bright blue. Straight from the tube bright blue.
But, when I arrived, three hours later in Yorkshire, I appreciated
the layers. I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and tugged them onto my hands.
The chap at passport control hoped I’d had a lovely holiday, I laughed and told
him the holiday was yet to come.
We went to my sister’s house for Christmas
Yes, the Midget (and the Blacksmith) own a house. That’s my baby sister. It’s got walls and ceilings and multiple toilets. They had just (and I mean just) had an oven installed. My baby sister owns half an oven.
I curled up on the corner of her sofa and started working
through the Blacksmith’s library. In the past my very small baby sister would
have asked me questions about the cooking or would have wanted me to give some
sort of guidance, but other than a brief explanation of how Grandmére
(that’s the French grandmother I once lived with) made soup, I found myself off
Afterall, if we’re being entirely honest, nowadays the
Midget is the better cook. She (and the Blacksmith) made the Christmas dinner appear
(other than the parsnips) on the table in a manner you might otherwise only
believe was possible in photoshopped recipe books. Wise elder sister advice is
unrequired. I know nothing of such grown-up activities as house ownership.
Once upon a time I would have got all hung up on the concept of home
I would have felt the disorientation and instantly felt a need to reaffirm my identity. I would have felt my role of bigger sister changing and compensated with bossiness. But sometimes the best seat is the corner of the sofa, and the best response to disorientation is to smile, with pride.
Now I’m back in my bedroom at my own desk. Well, the bedroom
that sometimes I sleep in when I’m here. I have my records spinning, the music
floats out of my speakers filling the room in a fashion I daren’t try in the ‘habitación’
I rent back in Spain. There are Spanish verbs on the walls and a piece of
masking tape labelling the small cupboard inherited from my Nonna as ‘la mesa
de noche’. It feels a long time ago that I read those words.
For the first time in a week, the sky looks somewhat blue.
Not out of the tube blue, something somewhat mellower. A wintery, Yorkshire
I’m not hereby insinuating that the bench in question is pretty. Its design is not profound. You would not remark upon it for its comfort. It represents no special sense of history. There is no poetry inscribed upon it.
The metal armrests are dull-pink. The sort of pink you don’t immediately notice as being pink because it shares more with a mucky brown or murky grey than the plastic along the ‘girly’ side of a toy shop. These armrests are lumpy, peeling, and irrelevant to my point. My ideal bench does not require pretty armrests. It’s not chosen for a film shoot.
Comfort I admit is more of a deal for me. If I am going to sit on a bench I want to be comfortable. I have a tendency to stay sitting for a while when I find a spot I like. The numb bum is the curse of being an avid reader (or in today’s case writer). Some comfort is a necessity. Nobody walks into a park expecting the comfort of a plush sofa of course. Should you be looking for a bench I suspect your choice is dictated by the absence of things – broken glass, bird poo, a half-eaten sandwich. And yet, I have risen from benches that are not comfortable enough.
My bench, the perfect one, is passable in this regard. The angle of the back, and the gap to the seat, force me to either slide my bum forward and read, chin to chest, with a strain in my neck, or, as an alternative, to shift my entire body further back so that the excess squidge of my bum hangs off the back of the seat.
Not exactly the perfect situation, but all the benches here are identical in this respect. I suspect the same person went around them all stencilling on the city’s name in white with the flourish of a single yellow stripe in the centre.
You might suppose then that since the benches are all constructed the same that it is the view that has captured my imagination. I can count eleven bins from my seat. Plus a Project Abraham clothes bank. It’s in better condition than its waste companions but could not be classified as picturesque. Two bins hang off lamp-posts. The nine others are those huge, foot-pedal ones that you find clustered together in suburban, apartment-block Spain – getting in the way of every photograph you ever wanted to take.
On all sides I am looked down on by three and four storey apartment blocks. The trees fail to block out their beige bricks or hide the plastic grey of the air conditioning units. To the far right is a wasteland where stray cats wind through rubble and people take their dogs when they don’t want them to dirty the streets (necessitating the use of dog poo bags). The wasteland is convenient in this respect. Beyond the wasteland, in the faded distance are the mountains. There are better views of the mountains elsewhere, but their presence is a pleasant reminder that the wild is not so far from the city streets.
So I lied. My bench is not perfect.
This bench though has something that others in the area, all with similar views, don’t have.
In the short days of winter, when the warm sun hangs so low in the sky, this bench alone defies the long shadows and basks in the sun’s rays all afternoon.