Tag Archives mother

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

Anecdotes and advent calendars

Winter, Yorkshire, 2021

I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.

As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.

His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.

Sometimes though a section sets off a spark

In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.

“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”

The following day, I went to her house.

The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.

“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.

I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.

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?

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If G-d hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for spoons…

This is a book about young girls being stolen from their families by drug cartels and then sold on to the highest bidder. It’s not a true story, in the individual sense, but it’s based on true stories. These girls, like Paula in the book, really do exist. They are systematically kidnapped, but they never come back. They are voiceless.

After reading the book, I read in an interview a line where Jennifer Clement states, “I know if cars were being stolen there would be greater outrage.” She points out how single dramatic events hit the news, but the everyday silent plight of these women fails to gain attention. These girls come from poor, vulnerable communities with limited educational resources and may only speak their indigenous language, not Spanish. Clement has decided to speak on their behalf, through a young Mexican girl with the unlikely name of Ladydi (Lady Di).

Say a prayer for ladders…

I bought the book because I’m making an effort to read more by Latin American women, but then I left it on the bookshelf for a while as its content seemed rather frightening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a novel, even a 222-page short novel, about systematic sex-abuse. It seemed unlikely to be a comfortable read and I doubted that it would make me laugh. On the laughter part, I was wrong.

Say a prayer for punctuation…

The book is the work of Jennifer Clement whose life has been split over the two sides of that troublesome border of Mexico’s north. Her book is set entirely in Mexico where she lives, but was written in English with an English sense of style. This is noticeable as the paragraphs and sentences are super short. It stands in contrast to the other books I’ve been reading by Latin American authors. Paragraphing is out of fashion in Latin America.

However, like many Latin American authors, Clement doesn’t use quotation marks to frame speech. Previously, if you’d asked me if quotation marks were important, I’d have said yes. However, since reading a few books without them, I’ve come to think of them as a stylistic choice. Your pedants might complain, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow. You seem to know when someone is speaking.

Based on my wider reading and a conversation with a fellow book lover, it seems that these punctuational deviations stem from the pen of James Joyce. Read a little around the topic of Latin American literature and you’ll stumble over Ulysses.

Say a prayer for mockingbirds…

Prayers for the Stolen reminded me of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school. Ladydi reminded me of Scout and I found myself reflecting on the choice of a child protagonist. How do you persuade the reader that the narrator is a child, without the writing itself being simplistic? Clement does this particularly well. Her sentences are often simply structured, and you can read a few paragraphs without coming to a comma, not because she’s missing out commas, but because her structures don’t require them. She’s generous with the simple words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ and so creates an easy flowing text, but with surprising quirks that keep you alert. Ladydi’s voice is naive and uneducated, but never boring: child-like, but never childish.

The very next morning Julio, the gardener, walked through the front door and I fell in love.

He walked right into my body.

He climbed up my ribs and into me. I thought to myself, Say a prayer for ladders.

I wanted to smell his neck and place my mouth on his mouth and taste him and hold him. I wanted to smell the smell of garden and grass and palm tree, smell of rose and leaf and lemon flower. I fell in love with the gardener and his name was Julio.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for shelves…

You know instinctively that Clement reads and writes poetry. This childlike voice of Ladydi reminded me of The God of Small Things and how Arundhati Roy also creates the innocence of childhood linguistics with playful rewriting of the dictionary and a throwaway tumbling of images, metaphors crammed into adjectives.

Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem house still had a river-sense.

A rushing, rolling, fishswimming sense.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

Because I loved Julio, the cars and trucks outside on the street sounded like rivers. … Cement walls became mirrors. My small ugly hands turned into starfish.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

And it’s this innocence, this flavour of pictures, this childlike perspective which makes the book so readable. In an interview, Clement said:

Even in doing the research for Prayers for the Stolen, I was also always looking for the poetic experience and how the divine coexists with the profane or beauty with ugliness. I also wanted the novel to have enchantment.

And she succeeded.

Say a prayer for magazines

Before writing the book, Clement spent a decade researching. She interviewed women in hiding: the wives, daughters and girlfriends of drugs traffickers. And she interviewed women from Mexico City’s Santa Martha Acatitla Prison during art therapy sessions. The inmates used collage as a way of giving voice to their own stories – a scene enacted towards the end of the novel.

So, although I picked it off my shelf, out of curiosity – I’d been thinking about punctuation – I must have forgotten my intention… I sat down on the bed below my shelf and kept reading until I was halfway through. It was the style that kept me there, the rhythm of Ladydi’s tale flowed and despite the context, I didn’t find myself recoiling and turning away (as I had in Laura Restrepo’s Delirium a few weeks earlier).

Pray for the stolen…

I loved how Jennifer Clement reaches out her gentle hands in a gesture of humanity to sections of society typically treated so inhumanely. Her characters weren’t playing at being likeable, some were drug traffickers or murders, some were painfully naive and others criminally deluded, and yet… although they’d all broken the law, you couldn’t help but find your heart aching for them.

It’s a true skill, I think, to maintain such tenderness.


Further reading and listening:

Open Book – Jennifer Clement – BBC Sounds

Pitt Chronicle interview

Deutshe Welle interview

The Guardian also has a review, however it’s inaccurate, thus I’d avoid reading it.

Retreating mindfully

Yoga retreat, North Yorkshire, August 2018

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

She says it very sweetly

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

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

This attitude isn’t going to get me anywhere

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

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

At the beginning of all this I was angry

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

Each day I awake to the same goals

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

Luckily, I have that guide in the Mother

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

Maybe there is something good to come from all this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their Chilean constitution / my Chilean education

By Posted on Location: 4min read
The majority of the protests were always peaceful. La Serena, Chile, October 2019.

Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday, the plebiscite took place

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

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

Teaching: a guessing game

Summer in the Alps, July 2018

As far as I can tell, after spending so much time watching people who supposedly know what they’re doing and being formally educated on the topic – teaching is mostly guesswork. Once you start reading into anything at depth you realize how little evidence there is that any technique actually works.

Coming from a scientific background I go searching for evidence

And for the criticism. Any evidence seems inconclusive and there seems to be bucket loads of criticism all over the place for every technique going. There seems little in the way of a benchmark of how fast anyone picks up a language. There’s a lot of beliefs about how people learn and a lot of assumptions.

Students ask me how long it will take them to get to a certain level and this is a reasonable question, to which I have no ready answer. In secondary school Spain, the students took two years of English classes to get to A2 on the common European framework then another two years to B1 then another two years to B2, but the only students who would achieve all that were ‘la crème de la crème’ (the best).

And there are all these students, stumbling around in fits and bursts

Like two-left-footed dancers missing the rhythm but bouncing along nonetheless, the luckiest of whom can laugh their way through, and somewhere along the line they learn that having your feet pointing in the right direction is more of a metaphorical need than a literal need: sometimes we sideways shuffle into success.

The truth is that the teachers themselves stumble through too, guessing how much input to give their students, balancing the accidental overwhelm with the pursuit of progress, trying to make things natural but wanting to demonstrate a learnt skill using specific language.

This talking to one another thing can get a bit tangled at times

In classes, we try to keep things structured and organized, but all that ticking little squares and faff that I detest is merely a tidy imitation of the language in action. Communication isn’t a checklist. Memorizing the dictionary won’t make you eloquent. My mother designates my father as the ‘putter upper’ of the umbrella and suggests hiding something in the ‘out-of-the-wayest’ place and my sister whom she is speaking to doesn’t even blink. This, despite being slightly unexpected, is still all English.

English is not a tick-box exercise. English is a living, breathing, sweating language with a uniqueness in every mouth it escapes. And that’s more than a billion mouths the vast majority of whom are using English as an additional language. There has to be a balance between analysing the language and developing a gut feel of what works.

So teaching is intelligent guesswork

It’s a game of balancing between too much and to little. With too much correction, the student becomes confused and demoralized. Too little correction, and they don’t progress: their errors become set in stone. And every student is going to have their own point of equilibrium and that point, from Monday to Friday, is going to change.

It keeps me guessing.

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.

The Pros and Cons list

Saint George and an unfortunate dragon, Prague, 2014

My mother was making a decision the other day, whilst we were hula hooping, and I asked if she had made a pros and cons list.

One of the characteristics of the decision she threw out was that it is ‘scary’. Twirling around the living room I stated, “so that’s on the pro list.” To which my mother grinned in a silly fashion and concluded that, “perhaps it could be on either.”

In May I took a five-hour spontaneous drive in a hire car, across a desert into a quarantined zone to catch an aeroplane home. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it on time, but I knew I had to try.

Fear didn’t pay much of a part in all this. Or, it did, the adrenaline rushed around my head and while I was waiting for the chap at the desk in the hire car agency’s offices to learn how to use the computer, I paced up and down. Fear came along for the ride, sitting in the back seat, but fear comes along anywhere I go. Fear is an innate part of life.

If fear had had its way, I would have sat on my bedroom floor and cried.

However, although all my fear responses were screaming like sirens, I maintained a focused calm. I’m not trying to pretend that I wasn’t speaking at ten thousand miles an hour or that my body didn’t shake and twitch, but as soon as I decided to drive, my thoughts calmed.

The beauty of being human is that we can make a decision that isn’t solely dictated by our physical response.

I knew that I had to deal with the problem one step at a time. First, I had the get the car, then I had to drive north. At some later point in time I would worry about my lack of boarding card and the police cordons and how to actually get to the airport. Mostly, I had to keep myself together for the next 96 hours because this trip I was doing alone.

When I sat down in the car, I touched the gear stick and smiled to myself that at least it wasn’t an automatic. Never mind that the gear stick was on the wrong side which inevitably results in me bashing my wrist against the car door. I hadn’t driven a car at all in months but for some reason it didn’t seem to matter.

When the midget turned twenty-one, I took her to Europe. In a café in Vienna, after many protests, she ordered coffee with the shakiest of hands. It was a large central café and I was pretty sure that the waitresses would understand enough English to give her a coffee, but the Midget was terrified.

My dad did the same to me when I was a child. He gave me money for a burger in an airport lounge somewhere and told me I could have one if I bought it. The Midget was with me then too, but she was smaller than the counter. Stuck between my dad’s generosity and my sister’s pleading eyes I somehow managed to be brave enough to order the food. We both ate burgers that day, with fries.

By the end of our Europe trip, the Midget was asking at the desk for international rail tickets with more confidence than she’d managed for that first cup of coffee.

Sometimes you don’t however realise how many small steps you’ve taken until you look back at something you’ve just done – like a spontaneous 5-hour drive to catch a plane in a foggy desert – and realise that as a big picture it all looks rather brave.

But bravery is often not something big, but merely a small step against the current. A mere shuffle forward in fact. Shuffle after shuffle after shuffle.

I sat in that car and pulled out of the supermarket carpark and realised that I didn’t need to try and coerce myself into feeling better about the situation. Nor did I need to cry. My sole job was to pay attention to the road and get myself home. And all at once I knew that however ridiculous my situation was, I was going to be able to handle it.

I’ve dealt with worse.

So yes, when you make your list of pros and cons anything dangerous ought to be on the negative side of the page, but just scary… I’d leave that off the list entirely. Fear will always come along for the ride, just don’t let it drive.