Una llama vieja y otros problemas

Los animales, Perú, 2020

En noviembre, iré a Chile. Estará en un avión que llegará en Santiago, con mis maletas y mis preocupaciones. Cruzará la calle y tomar mi prueba PCR a certificar que no tengo COVID. Estaré mi tercera prueba de COVID en un mes. Hoy tampoco tengo COVID: tengo una certificación a decirlo porque necesité otra prueba porque acabo de volver de Italia. Me siento como mi vida está una colección de papeles.

Iré a Chile, y entonces, ahora estoy pensando del estado de mi español, que no he estado estudiando estos meses. Por supuesto, hablo español frecuentemente, y envío mensajes a amigos en español. Aún hablo en español en Italia cuando los italianos no hablaron inglés (mi italiano está muy limitada). Pero, no está igual a mejorando mi español con intención y con libros y escritura.

Por eso, he decidido que necesito escribir por lo menos tres cientos palabras, hoy, esta noche. También, he encontrado mi libro do la gramática de español… es un libro pesado, denso y púrpura, pero un libro muy bueno para entender la diferencia entre español e inglés. En mi esfuerzo a entender el subjuntivo he leído capítulo veinte, y cuando estoy en el momento de leyendo, me siento como estoy aprendiendo… pero cuando cerro el libro, necesito admitir que el subjuntivo queda un misterio. Realmente, tengo mucho para aprender de capítulo uno que está sobre el género de los sustantivos, porque yo sé que hay muchos de estas palabras que no sé.

Por ejemplo, conozco que la palabra ‘alma’ en español significa ‘soul’ en inglés. Y eso he aprendido que lo toma ‘el’ aunque ser femenina. Pero no sabía que normalmente los sustantivos con una terminación ‘ma’ son masculinos.

En la misma página, leo que la llama no solo significa el animal, pero también parte de un fuego. ¡Qué raro! En inglés tenemos un dicho ‘an old flame’ que se usan por una persona con quien ha tenido relaciones románticas en el pasado. ‘Una llama vieja’ no podría igual…

Unsteady steps

Lambs, Yorkshire, April 2018.

When I travel, it’s inevitable that I carry with me my own ways of thinking. I hold thoughts together with the beliefs and assumptions I grew up with, amalgamated with the various encounters I’ve had along the way. My suitcase looks like it has been rather bashed around, like it’s got into a fight in the aeroplane’s hold and limped into baggage reclaim. My ways of thinking are, perhaps, similarly bashed. I encounter people who do life differently, who find me odd, remark upon what I believe are ordinary habits and good-naturedly try and correct my course. I’m undoubtedly enriched by this attention. I find people who go ‘huh’ at my beliefs, which makes me question my beliefs, which leads to the crumbling of the superfluous and the taking root of the solid. Obviously, for the most part, the cultures I encounter are all shaped by the same capitalism, however, inevitably, they have all taken different journeys, been scarred in different ways and are paying the price of greed (theirs or someone else’s) with varying attitudes. Some struggles are familiar; others are new to me. But even when we live similarly, we do so having arrived with different perceptions.

To travel, open to changing our ideas, means that we can, as much as perhaps is possible, teach ourselves to bend: to travel with closed minds just wreaks havoc on the peoples and places we encounter. Assuming we’re open to learning, travelling makes reframing our situation easier. Or, it makes the reframing harder to avoid. It builds cognitive dissonance. When outside our own bubble, we walk into stereotypes and land flat on our faces. This can be hugely helpful. When we travel, we are merely people passing through someone else’s society, sometimes it’s easier to be honest to a stranger. Strangers ask questions of us, they are curious about our foreignness, our exoticness. It’s also easier for them to ignore a stranger, proving that we’re not quite so important as we might have thought. Either way, people we meet travelling tend to bring attention to our weirdness with eager fascination immune to any idea that we might be embarrassed by their idea of us. Presented with such insight, we can then choose what we do with it.

People often ask me why I’m so desperate to return to Chile, especially Chileans who themselves crave to come to Europe or Canada. I find this a hard question to answer because the motivation is complex. Part of it is anger. I planned to stay in Chile and the fates forced me to wait. Part of it is that I liked being in Chile. I had no idea what was going on around me, but people kept being nice and I woke up in the mornings glad I was where I was. Part of it however is also a sense that I was learning a lesson that’s incomplete. I was building relationships in Chile; I was developing my understanding of the city I lived in (which liked to trip me up of a regular basis); and I was learning I was both privileged and irrelevant. Things that are handy to understand.

I thought, after being raped and going through therapy that I’d learnt a lot about humility. I thought I understood humility. I thought that having visited hell once in my lifetime I’d climbed out of the hole and was back on solid ground. I felt my feet were firmly planted. What I hadn’t realised was that the ground beneath me was artificial, built on a belief in security which, being born into privilege, I have and which, I swiftly discovered, was not so assured for all of my friends. In fact, in Chile, I was the odd one out because my ability to imagine the worst was so undeveloped. In Chile, I found my education a novelty, a mere bauble, and that my knowledge was, in many fields, non-existent.

A flaw, perhaps, was that my own therapy, which I am ever so grateful for, was predominantly about me. I had to change the language I used to describe myself so that I did not focus on what had been lost, or what I had failed to gain (especially in terms of societal status) but instead on what I could currently do. My healing was predominantly (but not only) a process of individual healing. People around me were affected by my situation, but their healing too was predominantly individualised. They learnt how to look after themselves and I learned how to look after myself. The humility I learnt and the strength of that inner core of self-faith which I developed were focused on me and my strength. Therapy taught me about personal boundaries, it taught me to look after myself as an individual and be generous with my own self-respect. It taught me that my strength to analyse was useful in appropriate doses, but that it could also be addictive and damaging to my well-being. It taught me to respect my emotions, but also to stand up to them, look after them and take care not to encourage them to develop into bad behaviours which negatively impacted me. It taught me about me.

In Chile, however, I think my understanding started to grow from this idea of humility as an individual to humility as humanity and that resilience is stronger when it is held in the connections between people rather than in the individuals themselves. I’m not saying that there’s anything particular about it being Chile where I observed this, and I learnt it as much from Venezuelans as Chileans, but that for me, as an outsider in an unstable environment, surrounded by difference, there was an impact.

In Chile I came face to face with beliefs which were not comfortable. They were often softly spoken, but they seemed to challenge me with the opportunity of dialogue, if only I were brave enough to take the opportunity, if only I had the humility to listen and to listen attentively and with affection. In Chile I learnt that I had to start over with humility and that I was no where near done, but also that the world was also much richer than I had imagined and I so much more malleable. In Chile I started noticing how much I take for granted and how much power I have with my choices. In Chile, I constantly failed to ask the right questions. Frequently I tangled myself in my insecurities about my Spanish or simply lacked courage, or other times, I was so in shock that I was unable to respond. Frequently that shock was in response to people’s kindness or generosity. It began to strike me how much I was receiving and how little I was giving. In Chile I was, more often than not, stumped. And I carried on, fumbling through my days, clutching at questions I couldn’t answer, wondering whether my presence was harmful or benign. But then I began to realise I was learning and that through the power of my own curiosity, I’d enrolled onto a course that required more stamina than any academic PhD.

I fought to stay and I failed.

And it felt a bit like running out of time in an exam, with me screaming please, let me finish, I know I seem stupid, but I’m sure given a bit longer, I’m going to understand. And if what I can see of the world, through my Chilean eyes, is incomprehensible then maybe I’ll learn to accept it, but please, more time, more time, more time.

How English of me. How linear my thinking. The resilience is in the relationship, not the individual, and the fact that I am in England is temporary and irrelevant. What I want is not something that can be clung to. There is no pass, no fail. When I come back home, I look at myself amongst my own culture and am grateful. It’s a thank you, and can I share this with you. I’m present and I’m listening. Healing is in the generosity and the gratitude. These concepts are not stationary points, they flow and connect.

Are you learning anything?

Lots and lots. The Netherlands, 2017.

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.

But grandfather, I’ve never stopped learning.

Highlights of the week…

Life before the pandemic. The Netherlands, 2017.

Other than the fence blowing apart, the water dispersing across the kitchen floor and the flashing antics of the oven, I’ve had a reasonably quiet week. Buried in grammar books, my mind remains settled and content. It has problems it can mull over: little things that keep it occupied. And for me at least, immersed in literature, the dullness of reality doesn’t seem so bad. I fear though that the lack of novelty in my life doesn’t make my writing particularly exciting. And that the lack of input results in a regurgitation of the same small thoughts. Despite normally being able to conjure an emotional calamity wherever I place myself – and thereby excuse myself from clear thinking – my moods remain mundane, and I fear my thoughts boring.

Literature fills a gap, but it can’t replace the excitement of screwing up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Note the dummy variable. If anything, I tend to be an optimist. And these thoughts (about adverbials and complements, relative adjectives or attributional nouns) do make me professionally more competent. There is no doubt that my understanding of the grammatical differences between Spanish and English is helpful to my students. That was an example of a cleft sentence. No doubt I’m also developing a deeper awareness of the prejudice that obnubilates the distinction between how I speak, what my father considers correct, fustian language, beautiful language, clear language and phrasing that compels action…

Bonus points for guessing which of the above words I learnt this week.

My favourite new word is ‘pratfall’, which is American (but let’s not be prejudiced), and ought to be used by football commentators both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Now I’ve written it on the blog I shall wait for my parents to throw it into some dinnertime conversation. Thanks to the pandemic, they are learning grammar whether they like it or not. Accidental language awareness helps too. I was pretty chuffed when a student mistakenly wrote ‘to probe’ meaning ‘to try’ and I suddenly realised the connection between ‘probe’ and the Spanish ‘probar’.

Such highlights I have in my week.

Piggybacking on The Mother’s self-discipline (or how I stay in shape)

On a lockdown walk with the Father (while the Mother was doing yoga), Yorkshire, February 2021

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.

Overlooking the village, Haworth, Yorkshire , February 2021

Me, however…

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).

But seriously, I ache.

Paulo Coelho’s On Elegance (And me on standing up straight)

Winter, Yorkshire 2021

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.

The video: [4k, 60 fps] San Francisco, a Trip down Market Street, April 14, 1906 – YouTube