I am unsettled. Uncomfortable with myself just sitting here. I’ve placed myself in front of the computer as if expecting that some miracle of composition will spring though my fingers, across the keyboard and with a twist of logic express something meaningful onto the screen.
It doesn’t happen like that. Any time I think about the product of writing I run into a wall. I know that I can only write by burying myself in the process. Settling down into the process isn’t always easy. Right now, I’m tired, despite sleeping what all the textbooks describe as enough hours. It’s not a physical tiredness but a sense of being worn away. The threads are a little too thin. And I’m overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed although it feels like nothing much is going on. I didn’t know that overwhelmed was the word until I hit out the letters. It’s these surprises which force me to keep writing. I trust my fingers to speak more truthfully than my mouth. I rely on my fingers to speak, as if their decisions are the voice within.
I’ve been tracking my thoughts, listening to my fears and another truth I’m hesitant about admitting is that it’s February. At this time of the year, I feel like I’m staring at my feet and hoping the ground beneath them stays put. I find it a difficult month. My mind traverses downward, as if weighed down by some great anchor embedded in the past, and I have to persuade myself to come back to reality.
I’m reminded of the elderly colonel in Nobody writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez who in the beginning of the book is uncomfortable with it being October since he knows October is a month which his frail body despises. He approaches the month with knowing and familiar anxiety, his mind struggling to look beyond the rains of October to a dream of December sunshine. His explanation for feeling under the weather is that it’s October.
It’s February. It’s fair to say that February heightens my anxiety. This time last year I picked up my bags, and headed into a realm of quiet. Somehow I had known from the outset that February was going to hold a challenge, that it would creep under my sky and disrupt my sleep, and wanting to stay afloat, I chose to give myself what I needed: quiet and space, a long hot shower and apple cake.
This year, as usual, I watch my thoughts with caution. I’m trying to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s probably too late. I believe February, especially these later weeks in February, to be difficult. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which works in two directions. Once we get past past International Women’s Day on March 8th, I’ll feel a sense of relief. call it irrational if you want, it will make no difference to me. I believe I’m much more likely to have a flashback or have a haunted dream in February than any other month. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, anything might happen, yet it happens to be what I believe. Belief is a powerful thing.
This year, I am in a different situation. I can’t simply take the time off and hide away. I have ambitions for the coming year and so I need to work and (both practically and legally) I need to stay put. I can’t wrap myself in sunshine, my go to anti-depressant, because… England.
It’s all tough work. Instead of hiding from myself I need to continue with myself and somehow, hand-in-hand with my discomfort, keep going. It’s invisible work. Hidden work. I wonder how many people live with such a rhythm as mine with the past and present wrestling with each other whenever any anniversary comes to pass.
Part of me wants to have the time alone with my emotions so that I can unravel them and do a spring clean. This isn’t an activity to be undertaken with an audience, although it may lead to more writing which may, or may not, have an audience. I’m not scared of being alone with my emotions, whether those of sadness or of anxiety and fear, but I despise drama and do not want to create it in the presence of others.
I promise myself that at some point I’m going to take myself somewhere sunny and quiet and give myself that much needed time-less space.
I’m currently in the process of working out how I’m going to stay in Chile. Not forever, just for longer than my current visa allows. My Chilean friends think I’m mad. Why would I stay somewhere with such an unreliable social and political system? Why would I want to live here where the police are hostile and the government corrupt?
My family I think also struggle to understand why I would
live somewhere that makes me so poor. We are living in different worlds, in
more ways than one, and I’m like the squirrel Ratatoskr in the world tree,
running up and down through the different places, only really belonging to the
tree itself. Luxury hotel to shared dorm in a hostel, neither really fit me.
But why stay in Chile?
The truth is it being Chile doesn’t really matter. If the cards had fallen in a different pattern last year, it might have been a different country, but they fell as they did and I ended up here. I ended up beneath the military curfew in a house of Chileans and with friends who are Chileans and I watched as people began to speak about sadness in a way that I have rarely ever seen.
That squirrel in me that scurries around collecting stories, peering into other people’s lives, stopped and stared. Here there was something new, something as yet unseen but something incredibly familiar.
Deep sadness resides in all of us, even if we don’t often recognise it as being there
For me, recognising my own submerged sadness has been a battle of therapy and self-love. I do not always find it easy to identify sadness, but being resilient and strong depends on my willingness to put the effort to accept the sadness within.
Now the volume of my sadness has, I believe, reached a natural and healthy balance. Whilst I will never be ‘over’ my trauma, the event has been relegated to history. I have mourned that shattering of my being and I have rebuilt myself in a different fashion. Through that rebuilding, I have changed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I now have a great curiosity about this post-trauma period of change that is necessary to rebalance the self.
Chile is a place of scars
Graffiti covers the walls in town, screaming the people’s pain. The fear and the hurt are real, the question for me is how do the people recover, redevelop their own sense of their own identity. Is it possible to do it in a healthy manner, or the more this goes on, is it to be more of the same, more of the ‘us and them’?
It’s not just Chile where such an attitude leaves scars behind, the whole world is bathed in a painful mixture of fear of the other. It gets more complex in Chile because of the history of the dictatorship and the current role of capitalism, which has a weird Stockholm syndrome like effect upon the people. Nurseries in my town are advertised with pictures of smiling girls with yellow pigtails when in the yard such children rarely exist. Similarly, the smiling faces on my university notebook have had the colour zapped from them, leaving a set of images behind which would not be accepted in England anymore – they would be considered unrepresentative of our genetic diversity. Pale skin is also associated with those who are better off. Those who wield power.
When we were in the Atacama desert, an indigenous lady, in jeans and a t-shirt, showed us carvings in the stone walls of the craggy valley that ran beside her small town, pictures like llamas and birds. The engravings were done slowly, with rituals and deep meaning, focusing the people on what it was that they desired, focusing the community on the needs of the whole community. I asked if the people still make such images and she shook her head. Why not? Her face changed. She hesitated. Vergüenza. Because they were ashamed. They didn’t want to be laughed at.
But did she believe?
Undoubtedly. And as we drove back from the river I saw the flocks of sheep shuffling along together with feathers marking their woolly coats with signs of protection, protection that would spread from the sheep to the earth and to the environment and which would look after the people who depended upon the land.
In a world crumbling under climate change, I would suggest that such shame is dangerous. I listen to the stories and I hear about how much damage is being done to the wildlife through mining, or how taking sea-kelp from the ocean to give bathroom products that gel texture is destroying the wildlife beneath the waves, and I wonder who ought to be ashamed?
And I’m caught in my own curiosity
All this, the traumatised country trying to understand what
it is, the fact that here there are people who really understand how to live
with nature, the fear, the shame, the sadness. The contradiction of adulating and
fearing the other. The continual struggle that goes on. All this adds up to a fixation
on my part. A fixation that I cannot simply walk away from.
Here in my Southern Spanish town, you sometimes have to think ahead. On a Sunday or a festival day normality ceases. When it rains nobody goes out as, due to a lack of adequate drainage, the streets flood. During the working week, many places close mid-afternoon, and places like the post office simply don’t bother reopening until the next day.
Here you can’t depend on a 24 hour supermarket or the bus arriving on time. On festival days (or during rain) the bus may or may not choose to run. Living here means that you have to be prepared in advance.
Planning ahead is also how I manage my own, unpredictable mental health. Since last week ended with a random burst of unsleepable madness, I thought I’d reflect a little on my ‘recovery day’ process to make sure that Monday morning had no choice but to go to plan.
I’m going to briefly cover…
The things I drop from my to-do list
The actions I take to get me back on track
The importance of good transitions
Sometimes the most important is what you don’t do
On Saturday night, before I went to bed, I wrote down a list of all the things I had to accomplish on Sunday. Then I removed everything I deemed unnecessary and could be put off. Writing this article wasn’t important enough to make the list, even though my original plan had it being edited by Sunday. Practicing Spanish was removed from the list too. Anything related to work was scribbled out. Any admin, scratched through.
It wasn’t that I was ruling out practicing Spanish, not at all, if I fancy practicing Spanish then that’s fine. But the thick black line removing it from my list affirmed that it wasn’t the priority for the day.
A rescue day, as I think of it, is not a normal day
On normal days I practice Spanish and I write articles. I stick to my bigger plan of learning goals and creative ambitions. On rescue days I rescue the little part of me that has been neglected and is screaming for attention through my sleep (or lack of sleep) and through all though ugly ways that stress makes itself known.
So what does this mean that I doing?
This morning I followed my morning routine, although much slower than normal. I had my coffee and my cereal. I watched a video about learning watercolour and I did yoga. Later I meditated.
Routine is important to me because when I’m working within a set routine I don’t need to waste energy making decisions.
Then I put my bedsheets in the washing machine and tidied my room. While the washing was whirring away I painted a pine cone and emailed my mother updating her on my life and my yoga practice. Keeping my mother vaguely in the loop is important.
The lady who I live with invited me to eat lunch with her.
In the afternoon I went out for a walk
It’s been raining here, most unexpectedly, and I perhaps lacked some fresh air. More importantly though, I needed to create space for my mind to mull over why it’s so upset. In the evening I went out for a coffee (descafeinado) and chocolate cake with a friend before going early to bed.
Which I guess doesn’t seem all that mad…
In fact it’s not all that different to what I normally would do. The difference comes in the transitions. When I’m picking myself up off the ground it’s rarely the activity that matters.
What matters is how I approach each activity
In one of his books I remember John Kabat Zinn suggesting we take special care to note the attitude we bring to the beginning of a meditation practice and the attitude with which we leave it. I try to apply this wisdom to each of my activities. Of course, it’s only possible for me to do this when I’m willing to slow right down.
I’ll give you an example
I posted my pine cone painting onto Instagram and was about to scroll through the feed, but noticed that I hadn’t consciously decided that this was what I wanted, so I paused, set a timer for ten minutes and then returned to Instagram. When the timer went off I stopped it. My thumb hovered over the feed for a moment while I thought. I knew I wanted to keep reading, but I also knew that I’d decided ten minutes was more than enough time, and so I stopped.
Or another example
At the end of the meditation track I play, the background soft noise continues some time after the meditation itself has ended. Normally I stop it playing and just get on with my day, but today I paid attention to my need to get up and be busy. I decided to wait until the very end and only stand up once I knew exactly what it was I was going to do.
But of course this is not easy
Rescue days might contain fewer tasks, but they are anything but easy. It is much easier to be busy. It’s easier to keep pushing yourself because that’s the muscle that you’ve spent your life strengthening. If you’re anything like me ‘more’ feels more natural than ‘less’.
But to slow down and catch myself, to not march but amble and take note, to set myself up for Monday morning and from there the rest of the week, this all means that I won’t just survive the week ahead but that I have the opportunity to enjoy it.
Living here in Spain the pace of life is slower
You can’t brutishly charge around expecting to have what you want when the rest of the town is busy having their extended lunch break. And you can’t expect that dinner is going to be an option at the moment you feel hungry. You have to learn to slow down to the pace of life around you. And you always have to be prepared for when, maybe, things don’t go your way.
So yes, I did less with my Sunday than I could have
I focused on what matters to my mental health most, and I made sure that I was aware of how I start and end each activity. I want to be the one choosing how I live rather than allowing myself to be led by compulsive desires.
And now I am prepared for Monday morning.
Do you actively change your behaviour to recover from a bad day? Or do you keep pushing on?
On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.
My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.
Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.
“How do you feel today?”
“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”
What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?
When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.
That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.
I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.
It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.
On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.
Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.
For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.
This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.
I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.
I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.
Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).
Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.
María takes control of her own story. She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.
Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.
Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.