On Going Part-time: Working less is best, but it comes at a price.

Once upon a time, my generation – I’m one of those much maligned baby boomers born in the 50s – were promised that one day in the future, we would all work a three day week. We would earn just as much money, and have a better lifestyle with lots of holidays and our own houses. We women would – and did, at least those women who worked then – retire at sixty and continue to enjoy a good life. We believed that, we believed in the dream of living a better life than our parents, the Silent Generation, born and growing up in times of poverty and terrible wars, who had seen and experienced things that we, thankfully and hopefully, never will. Who had given their lives and health for those of us who came later. No more, they said, never again, and so we grew up in hope, if not in wealth. We were always poor, and I do mean poor, but – to be clichéd – I remember being happy and well looked after.

Anyway, that’s history, and this isn’t a history lesson. This is – I don’t know – a mix of hope and fear. Hope because since choosing to work part time, I feel more in control of my life. Fear because those dreams of the future have not come to pass and I look toward a time where I may well be poor again. Because like so many generations, we were also lied to. People are working harder than ever, for less security, less pay. Less satisfaction, more stress. I won’t go into how we academics have not had a significant pay rise in years, but our salaries have in effect decreased as the cost of living has risen. Many younger professionals are on short term contracts, living precariously from position to position, unstable lives, not daring to complain in case they are seen as ‘difficult’. But this is not about that either, except to say that it’s an immoral way to treat people who are trying to build a career for themselves.

This is about me having had enough of the constant bombardment of ridiculous bureaucracy, stress and poor mental health, which anyone who has read previous posts will know about. This is about me taking the step to work part time and the liberation I feel having done so. I now work four days a week. That feels hard won, to be honest. Again, anyone who has read my blog will know that I’ve battled hard to get this far. I’ve had to compromise in ways that have damaged my recovery, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. But, I feel I am coming to terms now. And when I signed my contract to work four instead of five days, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again, and despite the impact on my earnings (my take home pay was less than I’d calculated – a bit of a shock and I’m still taking that in), I wish I’d done it sooner. I can now have a day where I don’t look at emails, where I don’t have to feel guilty for not being in the office. Where I don’t have to worry so much about being inadequate, something I’m always having to work on.

Some people have been sceptical of my doing this. Colleagues who know how conscientious I am have said, ‘Oh, but you’ll be fitting in five days’ work into four,’ and, ‘But I bet you’ll still…’ But I won’t. I’ll be fitting four days’ work into four. And I won’t work on the fifth. Because I won’t get paid for it, and because I’ve learned that looking after myself is a priority, and I no longer believe that the harder you work, the more rewards there’ll be. Because sometimes, there just aren’t. Sometimes you work hard and you burn out and are worse off. I won’t do that to myself any more. I’m older now, feel as though I need to start winding down from that ‘be competitive all the time’ mindset, to start to please myself rather than constantly trying to please others in ways that are detrimental to my wellbeing. It’s taken me sixty-two years to learn that lesson. Apparently I’m a slow learner!

Is my new resolve selfish? Well yes it is, but sometimes we need to be selfish. That does not mean that I will slack off at my job. Of course not. I love the teaching, and I really look forward to seeing my students and helping them to want to learn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s the only reason, other than the hard fact that I have to earn a living, of course. I believe passionately in education. But I have to say now, I don’t believe in a system that damages people. And I know too many people – including myself – who have been damaged by it.

That’s a rant. I didn’t want this to be a rant, but maybe it was inevitable given the reasons why I decided that enough was enough and that I had to cut my working hours. I’m lucky that I can afford to do so. I don’t have a mortgage and can pay my bills. Next year my partner will be moving in and can share the load. I’m really grateful for all the privileges I have; I wholeheartedly acknowledge them. I’ll always have a roof over my head, for example. But as I get older, I worry about how I’ll heat my house, because my pension will, contrary to popular belief about academics’ pensions being huge, be very small because I didn’t start to pay into a pension scheme until I was older. So I have to take my life in my own hands and, somehow, turn it around.

I have ideas. Last week I attended a very inspirational talk about how we might change the ways we look at students, about how we teach them and, most important of all, how we relate to them. Everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever said, and been told I was wrong to say it, was echoed there in those talks, and now I want to try harder to help make changes to a system that values procedure over people, instead of the other way round. It will be really hard – how do you turn around an oil tanker with a tug? – but it will give me something to work towards, and I hope – if I’m allowed to start talking change – it will make my last couple of years before retirement more positive. Alternatively, I can drop my hours even more, and concentrate on my writing.

This is my horoscope for today (I’m a Pisces and use the ‘Co-Star Personalized Astrology’ app):

‘The rebel in you is on fire. Focus on larger truths. When you open yourself up to the world, every book and every person you meet, becomes a component of your                                learning process.’

This rings true to me. I haven’t decided my future yet – maybe it will be a mixture of both of the above – but finally I can see a glimmer of light, a rebellion against what has gone before, an opening up of doors and choices, and I’m slowly heading toward it.

Florence Part One: In Search of a Sense of Peace

‘Florence is considered to be the artistic, historical, and cultural capital of not only Tuscany, but of all Italy. Its physical elegance coexists beautifully with the il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) lifestyle of the Florentines and it reveals the city in a strong, yet gentle way that makes us want to delve deep into its art, culture, and history.’ – (Remembering Florence and its Renaissance Beauty at https://www.globotreks.com/destinations/italy/remembering-florence-renaissance-beauty/)

 

We – my daughter Kat, and I – land at Florence airport late afternoon, and step into an inferno of sunshine. We have arrived, and I look forward to having a new adventure, but also to decompressing after what has been an awful year for me in terms of my mental health. Perhaps even finding some peace in my still too-cluttered mind.

When Kat suggested we should go to Florence for our annual break together, I was initially not overly excited. Last year I’d completely lost my heart to Rome, a bucket list destination, and Florence had never really been on my go-to list. How could it possibly compete with the Eternal City? I’ll hold up my hands now and say, I was wrong. Totally and absolutely. As soon as I set foot on Florentine soil, I have the sense of homecoming, much like I’d had with Rome last year, but in a quieter, more gentle way.

A quick tram ride from the airport takes us to our hotel, The Apollo Guesthouse (http://www.apolloguesthouse.it/en), which is set in a huge apartment building. We enter through a big wooden communal door into a large atrium and an old-fashioned lift takes us up to the third floor into a lovely small hotel, where the manager shows us into a big, bright and airy room. He tells us a little about our location – a mere ten minute walk from Florence’s Renaissance centre. I’m excited to begin to explore, to leave behind (if that’s possible) at least some of my worries and concerns for the upcoming academic year, and try to live in the moment.

After unpacking and a brief rest, we leave our hotel and make the short walk through narrow streets to the Duomo – the Cathedral of Santa Maria Fiore – where I am left almost speechless by what I’m seeing, by its sheer size and unexpected beauty. I’ve seen it in photos, read about it, but that hasn’t  prepared me for actually seeing it, just like last year, when I wasn’t prepared to come face to face with the Colosseum or treading in the footsteps of Julius Caesar. I’m suddenly in tears, overwhelmed and moved by what I’m seeing. How it speaks to some deeper part of me. To the dreamer that is so often repressed by the pressures and stresses of my ‘real’ life. These monuments from a long ago past affect me so much; their timelessness, the knowledge that I’m in the presence of the genius of their creators, and the feeling that I’ve been transported to a kind of fantasyland, makes me want to create. So it is with my first view of the Duomo, with its intricate facades, its light and shade chiaroscuro. I’m not a religious person, but the sense of the numinous in this place that transcends words is so strong I can almost touch it.

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As we explore, we discover that Florence is a city of narrow roads and alleys, which suddenly widen into piazzas that bubble with life. Around every corner there’s something new, something that will take the breath away. On that first early evening we wander, quite by chance, into the walled garden of the Palazzo Medici, built by Michelozzi for Cosimo Medici between 1444 and 1484. We linger a while in the garden, with its fruiting lime trees (something that excites me almost as much as the architecture) absorbing the atmosphere, which, despite the few tourists who, like us, are admiring the classical statues, the mosaics on the floor, is peaceful and respectful. This was to become, in the few short days I was in Florence, a feeling I carried with me. That sense of peace. It wasn’t that the city was empty, because it wasn’t  – it’s August, after all, the height of the tourist season, and the city has a vibrant feeling of life – it was just that it induced that hoped-for sense of peace in me. An absolute sense of peace that I’m trying to hold on to, now I’m back.

We wander a little more – well, I say wander but in fact we’re in search of gelato (apparently gelato originated in Florence). Kat and I LOVE our food, and she’s done a lot of research into places to eat and drink. On this late afternoon, we’re specifically hunting for a gelateria in the close-by San Lorenzo area, My Sugar (https://my-sugar.business.site), a tiny independently owned shop tucked away down the Via di’ Ginori. The owners are a young couple, and today we’re looked after by the female half of the partnership, who takes our orders, which we make in badly pronounced Italian, but hey, we’re trying, and we experience our first Florentine gelato. I have to say that I can’t remember what Kat had, but I choose the dulce de latte, served in a cup, and the first bite is soft, smooth cold heaven. We move slowly now, savouring the sweetness, toward the Mercato Centrale (https://www.mercatocentrale.com) the covered market complex which has an upstairs eating and drinking area, for a pre-dinner glass of wine, a local rose, taking in the buzzy, vibrant atmosphere. It reminds us a little of the Time Out complex in Lisbon, where we spent some of evenings, and the Mercato will become a similar focus in evenings to come. We chat for a while, excited about what we’ve already seen, and then we go to dinner.

Our first meal in Florence is in a restaurant opposite our hotel – Malatesta (https://www.bracieremalatesta.com/en/)  – and we have a money off voucher. This is very handy, because we’d planned to eat there anyway. We’ve already decided to order the bisteca alla Fiorentina, the traditional Florentine steak, cut from the Tuscan breed of cattle, the Chianina. The waiter – friendly and helpful on what to choose, takes our order, and we wait, drinking a very good house white wine and nibbling on bread. When the steak came, we gasp at the sheer size of it (a Florentine steak is meant to be about three to four fingers high, and we’ve ordered the traditional cut, all 1.5 kilos of it!), the Australian couple next to us laugh. The waiter, as he cuts the very rare meat from the bone, seems to think we won’t  manage it all, and that it might be too rare for us, so we take that as a challenge. It’s hard work, but we eat it. All. And since we both like our steak rare, that isn’t a problem. I think the waiter is impressed!

 

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And so ends our first evening in Florence. We go back to our hotel, just across the road, full of steak and wine, and watch Friends on Netflix. I realise, as Kat and I laugh, and chat away about the day, that I can feel a sense of letting go, of having lived in the moments I’ve experienced, AS experiences, instead of being preoccupied with what might stress me out, of what might go wrong or make me anxious or unhappy. I mean, don’t misunderstand: my anxiety is ever-present, even though my depression has gone for now, but today, this evening, here in a magical city, it’s further away than it’s been for an age. I embrace that, and fall asleep easily for the first time in a long time, and look forward to the next day.

 

 

Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.

The Parakeets of Hyde Park (and their mental health benefits!)

 

 

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Originally from Africa and southern Asia, ring-necked, or rose-necked parakeets ‘were kept as pets in the UK. They escaped into the wild, however, and have become naturalised in the south-east especially, aided by warmer winters’ (The Wildlife Trust) are birds I can’t resist. According to the RSPB website, they’re ‘large, long-tailed and green with a red beak and a pink and black ring around its face and neck. In flight it has pointed wings, a long tail and very steady, direct flight. Often found in flocks, numbering hundreds at a roost site, it can be very noisy.’

And they are all of those things.

I first came across them in Greenwich Park a few years ago. I heard bird sounds I didn’t recognise – not that I recognised very many then (and don’t always now, either!). Still, despite my inexperience, I knew instinctively that this was something different. The calls were tantalisingly close, and yet, crane my head as I might toward the sounds, hunting for any sight of the bird that made it, but seeing absolutely nothing except the green leaves of the trees, I couldn’t make anything out. I’ve since learned that their brilliant green plumage means they’re superbly camouflaged; seeing them when trees are in leaf is pretty difficult. So I went away that day wondering what I might have heard.

I found out a few weeks later In Richmond when Keith and I walked the River Thames from Richmond to Kew. At the riverside in town, we saw male mandarin ducks, looking like painted toy ducks, which was pretty cool, and then when we walked out of the town centre, we heard that sound again, even more raucous and squawking. And this time we saw them. Loads of bright green birds flocking in the trees on the opposite bank, outside several small apartment blocks. They were clearly visible but we got our binoculars out, of course, and began to watch. And immediately I was in love.

Firstly I couldn’t believe I was watching wild parakeets in London. At the time I didn’t know the extent of their colonisation of London and the South East of England. In this one place there were so many of them – as the RSPB says, a huge flock – we gave up counting. As we continued to walk, we observed more and more, many flying over our heads to the opposite bank, squawking loudly as they flew, something I’ve come to love to watch, like bright green feathery arrows, or fighter planes zooming overhead.

Since then I’ve seen them in all sorts of places. When my daughter and I went to Rome last year, there they were, flying around the top rows of the Colosseum. At that time, despite being in a city I’d always longed to go to, seeing all the things I’d always longed to see, so happy to be there, I was really struggling with my depression. Seeing the parakeets made me ecstatic.

And then Keith and I found their feeding spot in Hyde Park, one of the original Royal Parks in London. Hyde Park isn’t my favourite park. I find it a little uninteresting compared to, say, Regent’s Park, or St James’s Park or the bigger parks like Greenwich. But I do enjoy a walk around the Serpentine, a huge artificial pleasure lake, where people can hire boats and pedaloes, or swim in the lido. I don’t go for any of that. I go for the wildfowl that have colonised the lake. True, it’s not as varied as in some other parks, but I love to watch the mute swans (although I’m quite scared of them) the Canada and Greylag geese, and the zombie-looking Egyptian geese which are, in fact beautifully marked. I enjoy the squabbles of the coots, and especially the cheeping of their young. But best of all, there’s that spot in Hyde Park where parakeets come to be fed. Or rather, where visitors to the park come to feed them. I don’t know how or why this happened but it has, and when you visit the spot, just back of the Albert Memorial, it’s captivating.

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So this Saturday just gone, we were in the area. I was feeling, for whatever reason, pretty anxious and needed a fix, if you will, of parakeets. There were a lot of people there when we arrived, all standing around watching. At first it seemed as though nothing much was going on, but then they came into view. Then I saw people with parakeets on their hands, on their heads, flying around them, as they swooped in for the food that was being offered. Immediately I felt the anxiety drain away, replaced by a feeling of absolute joy and amusement. Now, I understand that animals aren’t here for our entertainment. More and more, I’m furious with so-called human beings who kill other animals for so-called pleasure: big game hunting, fox hunting, murdering raptors on grouse moors, killing the grouse themselves just for fun. I loathe it with a passion. It makes me feel that there’s no hope for humanity, or the creatures we kill. But watching animals – birds especially for me, of course – brings joy and, yes, entertainment. It’s increasingly being shown that interacting with nature (and okay, the parakeet isn’t a native bird, but then the grey squirrel, and rabbit, aren’t native animals either and most of us love watching them, and they’re still part of the natural world!), has beneficial effects on our well-being. For those of us with mental health issues, such encounters have been demonstrated to have healing effects on or overloaded brains. And this how I feel when I see the parakeets of Hyde Park, when I watch them interact with us, cleverly using us to get free food, while yes, we use them too. I feel like all the dark or anxious thoughts are cleansed, replaced by something – well, maybe more light and pure,

Whether or not that’s entirely ethical as a reason to watch wildlife, I don’t know. How do we measure that? But what I do know is that watching wildlife brings joy for so many of us, and we need to appreciate that more. Understand that we’re all interconnected, that everyone benefits, including and especially the creatures we take for granted, and in taking them for granted, seeing them as nothing more than resources or things to be cleared for so-called ‘advancing civilisation’, we are all rushing toward destruction.

It occurred to me, observing the pleasure that parents and their children shared together watching these bright and beautiful noisy birds, that maybe the seeds of something good were being sown. That maybe there is some hope after all.

So, although you can’t read this, thanks, parakeets. Thanks for being part of our urban world, however that happened. Thanks for your bold interactions and allowing us to watch you, and helping us to focus – even for a little while – on something other than the increasingly conflicted world we live in.

 

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https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/ring-necked-parakeet/

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/parakeet/ring-necked-parakeet

https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park

Some (short) Musings on Self-(re)discovery

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi

 

“Why escape your intended purpose by copying and trying to be someone else? You will discover who you were meant to be only after you have shown confidence being yourself.” ― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

 

Every day is a day of recovery. Every day I learn more about myself. It’s a long process and I’m unlearning a lot of previously learned ‘truths’, and while I’m still not entirely well – and what does ‘wellness’ really mean, since it’s a continuum that takes in states of illness-wellness, as proposed by Dr. John Travis in the 1970’s, who stated that ‘Wellness is a process, never a static state’ (link below). I think that wellness for me will involve developing a sense of inner peace, a sense of having and doing things in life that are nurturing, rather than damaging.  My recovery is a process, that continuum of illness-wellness, but I now have to try to work more along the wellness side of the continuum, because I’ve accepted that I may never be entirely well, and that’s okay, it really is, because this kind of knowledge is power. A movement to the side of wellness. As long as I can feel joy, love the people I’m with, do the things I like to do with a sense of pleasure and achievement, and be appreciative of the good things in my life, then that really is fine. I want to write more about that here. To chronicle what gives me joy, whether that be new writing, talking about new or established places that uplift me, or watching and writing about nature, wherever I may find it.

I’ve always been self-reflective, I know myself very well. But this recent breakdown (and it is still relatively recent and I’m still in the healing process) has taught me more about myself than anything that’s gone before. I think this was and still is elicited by an extreme fear of it happening again, and fear can be a great motivator. So I’ve forced myself to look deeper, to really continue, rather than begin, that long journey into myself, in order to recognize and acknowledge the things that that help me, and the things that harm me. I’ve learned that I must accept more of what nurtures me, and can, in a positive way, reject things that cause harm, and to start to build my life into a model of something I can feel comfortable with and excited by.

This will involve a lot of changes, and change, for many of us with any kind of anxiety disorder, is really scary. Up until now, utter terror has kept me static. I still feel that I’m static, mostly because I feel as though I can’t properly move on and plan for my life without certain situations, over which I have limited control, have been resolved. I can’t quite say, ‘screw it, I’m going to do it anyway’, and I’m very aware of time slipping through my fingers. But maybe fear is just an excuse. I have to explore this stasis. What, exactly, other than fear, is holding me back? Why am I allowing myself to remain in situations that are bad for me?

Suzy Kassem’s words hit home to me when I found them. I was searching for quotes about self-discovery for this post, and it occurred to me – as I’ve said in other posts – that I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be me. Reading Kassem’s words put that in clearer focus for me. I’ve copied and tried to be someone else, but I don’t know who that someone else really was. I guess it was someone prettier, thinner, more intelligent, less afraid, more confident than I’ve ever been. Now I think that person doesn’t exist, except in the nagging and critical depths of my nagging imagination. So now I have to consider – who am I meant to be? That looping question – what is ‘myself’? – will be another focus of my continued journey along that continuum. I’m scared of that journey, and I’m scared of what lies at the end of it – although I guess the journey itself will never be at an end.

Life is not some three act hero’s quest fantasy. Life is real, painful, joyous, chaotic, and ever-changing. I really really want to live it to the full before it’s too late.

 

What is Wellness? at http://www.wellpeople.com/WhatIsWellness.aspx

 

Suzy Kassem at https://suzykassem.com

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 4. Writing Myself: A Tentative Exploratory Foray into Therapeutic Writing

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

― Graham Greene, Ways of Escape

 

Graham Greene sums it up, really, and maybe I don’t need to say any more than this. And yet, we all come to writing in different ways for different reasons. I’ve already explored this a little in other posts, how I’ve always been led by my imagination. Our imaginations take us to places known and unknown, allow us to meet people we already know of, and people who are strangers, and we invent people that we might want to know, who we may aspire to be. Alternatively we might meet (and invent) those who terrify us, who challenge us, who make us question our own motives, and sometimes, our otherwise unspoken fascinations.

But it’s more than that for me, and I can only speak for myself. And for myself, I think writing fiction was a way of not facing my reality head-on, but through the lens of fiction – usually through horror and dark fantasy fiction, which probably says quite a lot about my preoccupations. As Emily Dickinson says: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – ’ Slant, so I need not look whatever ‘truth’ might mean in the face. Plus, I never thought I had anything interesting to say about me and my life. That, in fact, I was not interesting enough to explore myself in memoir-type writing. And maybe I’m not. I’ve accepted it’s not my place to judge.

When I became ill recently, my imagination grew ill with me. In fact, it seemed to die. There was nothing but grey mist in my mind, darkness in my ‘soul’, although I hesitate to use the word, but write it here as a kind of placeholder. Maybe psyche is a better word. Whatever. There was nothing. There has been nothing before, at other times when I’ve been unwell, but it was nothing like this blankness. This inability to be able to ‘see’ as I had once seen in what appeared to be living, breathing, vibrant images. This was a yawning void that sucked me into its empty heart. For someone who lives in their mind, probably too much, this was like another disability. And no, I don’t use the word lightly. If I couldn’t write, then what was I? What was my worth? To an extent, it’s still like that now. I seem to have little imagination, in the way it used to be. I can no longer imagine the fictions I used to imagine; the images, sounds and characters are no longer vibrant in my mind, and this is really, really hard. I worry that maybe I’ll never get that back, that my ability to create in that way has been lost forever. I worry that my depressed self, which tells its own fictions, will take over forever. It’s a kind of grieving, I guess, for a self that once was. But as the light re-emerged, my need to invent other places and people seems to have been replaced by another kind of need. The need to express myself through myself. To use words as a means to explore me, to help me to understand what ‘me’ really means. To use words as a kind of healing. To explore the ‘madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear’ that Greene describes.

To stop telling the truth ‘slant’.

As a slight digression, I recently read that five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians believed in the magical power of words, which were, according to their beliefs, at their most powerful when written on papyrus, a way of concentrating and focusing the magic that would drive out disease and demons. Sometimes words were dissolved in liquid, and given as medicine. The power of the word, in spells, in charms, in fictions and fact, is long understood. Words are power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. The healing aspect is something I’ve become hugely interested in, and it’s known as Writing Therapy:

‘For nearly 30 years I’ve had the same therapist. I’ve called on my therapist at 3am, on my wedding day, on a cold and lonely Christmas, on a Bora Bora beach, and in the dentist’s reception room. I can tell this therapist absolutely anything.’ (Adams. 1990)

The therapist Adams speaks of is her journal, and as she implies, the journal ‘therapist’ listens like no one else can. It will not judge you. It will not interrupt. It will not try to make you feel better with well-meant advice or platitudes. It will not be embarrassed. It is there to help you express in writing what you may not be able to express verbally, when words are too difficult to speak. It is there, in the words of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, who ‘describes writing as the process of explaining yourself to yourself, of pushing into the places of your experience where you have no articulated knowledge of the world’ (Bell, J and Magrs, P. 2001). I’ve ‘pushed into those places’ but usually they have been places of the imagination, of dreams and visions, in works of horror and the darkly fantastic. But I’ve never really explored my own life in a direct way. I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything interesting to say. That I am interesting to anyone else. But now…. Now I feel driven to explore my own emotions through the way of expression that is the most ‘natural’ to me. Through writing. Could this be a ‘poetics’ of my writing and how it’s linked to my mental health? Is there such a thing? Exploring and discussing the facets of my writing that link to my mental health and vice versa? I’m not sure where I would go with this, but I think it could be interesting. I think I’m starting to understand now what my present type of writing is for, what this blog is trying to do.

So begins the exploration.

Adams, K. Journal to the Self. (1990). New York. Warner Books.

Bell, J and Magrs, P. (2001). The Creative Writing Coursebook. London. Macmillan.

Dickinson, E. ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263 (accessed 21/09/2019)

Pinch, G. ‘Ancient Egyptian Magic’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/magic_01.shtml (accessed 21/06/2019)