What Defines Us?

If I had made a New Year’s resolution to define myself as a weekly blogger, that definition would be in the bucket already as its been a month since my last post! Just as well I didn’t make any resolutions then.

I find myself quite hard to define – grandmother, mother, sister, babysitter, friend, part time administrator, volunteer, trainer, writer, environmentalist, knitter, member of an older generation…? Truth to tell there’s no easy one-size-fits-all word I can find that would sum me up to my own satisfaction. Choosing between those possibilities would ignore all the others and would seem inadequate as a definition. I suppose really I rebel against the idea of receiving a label and being put in a box.

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The title of this post has been borrowed from a book I just read, “What Defines Me” by Amy Kingham (daughter of a friend of mine). The story (among other things) concerns a young woman who is diagnosed as bipolar, which becomes an all-consuming definition of who and what she is, and how her family and friends engage with her and she with them. In the end she comes to the realisation that who you are isn’t to do with what label society has given you, but more about what you do, the actions you take. Because, no matter what your label is, it’s what you do that defines you, reveals who you are, what you feel, what you believe.

I think this was brought home to me very strongly when I was exploring the lives of my parents earlier in this blog. The idea that the people who, as children, we relate to as Mummy and Daddy have a whole other life apart from us, a history that we only really glimpse in old photographs, or in the – highly edited! – stories they choose to tell us. Perhaps when we grow up we can come to see them as fellow adults, get a different perspective and start to understand better how they relate to the world as people in their own right. Perhaps we never really reach that point.

Take my mum. I couldn’t say that I ever had that kind of easy relationship some people describe where their mum is their best friend. No matter how much I tried (and perhaps I didn’t try hard enough) we never reached a way of connecting with each other on an equal footing; it was always that parent and child dynamic. Even when I was decades in to my adult life and had children and grandchildren of my own, visiting her at home always felt like stepping back into the past. It was as if she couldn’t escape from the definition of herself as “Mummy” and couldn’t resist judging me, telling me what to do, approving or disapproving of my actions. And of course I would mentally slip into rebellious teenager mode and so the unacknowledged cycle would continue.

I’ve just noticed that I didn’t include the word “daughter” in my list at the top of this. On the one hand I’m not a daughter any more as my parents are no longer with us. But it’s problematical, that one. For me it contains a whole world of expectations that for large parts of my life I found myself unconsciously resisting. This was because I felt I was part of a kind of family conspiracy where we had to present a front to the rest of the world about what kind of family we were. Things like “don’t mention your father is a bus driver” or “you are as good as anyone else”.

Of course the other side of that coin is that you don’t feel free to just be yourself, warts and all. You can’t do anything that would reflect badly on your mum and dad. Most of all, you don’t share things with your parents, or anyone else, because you are frightened of their disapproval. And that carries on until well in to your adult life.

I may not have actually rebelled as a teenager, but I did eventually come to a – rather wonderful – realisation. Which was that whatever the failings of my relationship with my mother (my dad had by this time passed away), I could choose the kind of daughter I wanted to be rather than just re-treading the old well worn path. I’m not saying it transformed the family visits, but it did enable me to have a more honest conversation with myself and my sisters.

In the end, I always believed that my mum did love me, and I loved her, however problematical that was. I never felt that love more strongly than in her last days when she lay quietly in her hospital bed with life gradually slipping away from her. We’d all come to visit in her final weeks, to say goodbye. You could always see that, even if she could no longer bring your name to mind, she always knew who you were. I felt that, stripped back to the bare essence of herself, what remained was her love for her family and her trust in our love for her.

How surprising that I should have alighted on the word “daughter” quite so conclusively – I wasn’t expecting that at all when I started. And equally startling is the lack of mention of the word “wife” or “ex-wife”. There was a time, many moons ago, when I was defined as the wife of someone, or when I felt defined by the whole getting-over-it process. Today, a week after my 66th birthday, it’s but a faded memory, though I remain friends (at last!) with Peter, the ex.

It occurs to me that how you define yourself depends largely on the context, doesn’t it? In a casual conversation you tend to fit in with what the other person is expecting – “Maggie’s mum”, “Charlie’s granny”, “Brian’s office manager”. You don’t break out and reveal that thing which is actually obsessing you, despite outward appearances. For me at the moment, I’m in trainer mode for the workshop I’m going to be giving at this weekend’s Samaritans conference – should I make some final tweaks to the script; are my props and handouts ready; what am I going to wear? In the couple of months before Christmas I was frantically knitting during every spare moment in order to fulfill my eBay orders for hand knitted mittens – “eBay entrepreneur” perhaps? Right now, this moment, I’m a blogger (hooray!)

As I get older, I’m not really that interested in labels. I know what the truth is – I’m me, and as I said in my New Year blog, my greatest desire is to be as true to myself as I can at each and every moment of each and every day. Sometimes I may be defined by overwhelming sorrow, or concern for a friend or the harassment of a work deadline. But as George Harrison said “all things must pass” and I know that sadness or wisdom or joy will be embraced and absorbed into my being and become part of that definition of self that is constantly shifting and evolving as I journey through my life.

I suppose I’m a fairly private person, but I’d like to think that the people who matter most in the world to me can see beyond any easy labels and know that for all my shortcomings the definition I’d be happiest with is this:

Someone who is capable of love.

 

My non-resolutions for 2020

I don’t like making New Year resolutions, they just seem like a list of ways to fail in the coming 12 months. Or, more accurately, by the 3rd of January! Apparently just 8% of people keep their resolutions, did you know that?

Anyway, I already don’t smoke or drink (never have, never wanted to); I walk or use public transport to get about (don’t own a car); I recycle everything I can, always have. As you can see, I’m perfect already! Ha ha ha, excuse me while I roll about the floor laughing at this ludicrous notion.

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Anyhoo. I can’t get away from the fact that the turn of the year is nevertheless a time to take stock and re-evaluate your life, to clear the decks for the new year to come. And if you’re like me, to berate yourself for projects left undone or never started, time wasted, clutter collected, all my best intentions lying in ruins at my feet.

Really? Well that’s what it feels like. Never mind that I did a big clear out before Christmas, took a whole pile of stuff down to the charity shop, caught up with my to-do lists, wrapped up and sent home made gifts to my family… That’s all very well I tell myself, but what about all the stuff I didn’t do? The blog left untouched since last October, the workshop I should have written by the beginning of December, the friends I meant to have lunch with and didn’t… Now that list literally is endless!

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It’s not all doom and gloom, well it is, but not because of the undone stuff. As I went to bed on Hogmanay (way before the bells by the way), I did allow myself to resolve (as I have for several years now) that in 2020 I would carry on striving to be more true to myself, not to be diverted by irrelevant stuff, whether of a physical, mental or spiritual nature. And therein lies the potential for the doom and gloom. Because of course the question then arises “Who AM I anyway???” Aargh!!!

But, dear reader, there is a small candle of hope in the midst of all this endless introspection. It comes in the shape of a Prayer for the Day which caught me unawares as I was texting/messaging New Year greetings to all and sundry while Radio 4’s Today program played in the background.

This bishop chap started telling us how during a new year retreat years back, he’d been given the task as a spiritual exercise of writing his own obituary. Once he’d got over the thought that it was a rather macabre thing to do, he discovered it was a really helpful way of forcing him to reflect on what it’s worth spending time on and what it’s not. What he really cared about and what he didn’t. What’s worth fighting for and what’s not. What, in short, he’d want to be remembered for.

And just like that, I had suddenly found the right questions to ask, a helpful perspective. So, I can do no worse than finish by repeating Bishop John Inge’s New Year prayer, in the hope that it will inspire me (and perhaps you?) all the way through 2020 and beyond:

Loving God, give me the grace to make good use of the time given to me here on earth. In the coming year, give me the wisdom to know how best to use my time, my talents, my energy and my resources. Help me to discern what it’s worth spending time on and what is not; what I really care about and what I don’t; what it’s worth fighting for and what is not.

Amen.

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Under the Clock – Amy

Amy stared without seeing as the conductor inspected her return ticket – she’d not expected  to use it quite so soon. It had been a heart wrenching moment when she’d caught sight of that chap with Jenny under the clock. From the back he’d looked just like Des, stopping her in her tracks as the past suddenly seemed to materialise before her eyes. It had taken a moment or two to realise that this was someone entirely different. In fact she recognised him as the guy who’d been around when Jenny had been producing that play two or three months ago. What was his name? Ethan, that was it. She wasn’t in any way surprised that they seemed to have finally got it together and realised that it probably answered her recent feeling that Jenny had been somehow distracted. She’d slipped away, no doubt she’d hear all about it soon enough.

But that moment under the clock had really shaken her. She’d not thought about Des for years, had managed to put the whole sordid affair out of her mind. Now she couldn’t shake off the image or the memories that came flooding back of how they used to meet at that very spot. She a rather naive 20 year old, he not so old really, maybe 30-ish, the age she was now. Nothing wrong in what they were doing he’d said, it was just… Well people get the wrong idea when a professor and a student fell in love so best to wait until you graduate Amy, you see that don’t you?

And of course, like a fool she’d agreed. She was in love, she’d have agreed to anything. She didn’t see the clandestine afternoons at the Central Hotel as something furtive or sleazy, but instead lived for the moment when they they would be free to be together properly. They’d get married, have lots of children, live happily ever after… Her eyes smarted as she remembered. She took her book from her bag and tried to read but the words swam before her eyes. Her usual ploy of staying frantically busy just wasn’t working today.

Today she couldn’t dismiss the memory of that moment 10 years ago when a tall woman in a striking red coat had walked right up to her as she approached their usual rendezvous point under the clock. A tall woman who had come up close and hissed in her face, “How dare you! There’s no point looking for him, you little bitch, he’ll not be coming today, or ever!” She’d thought she was going to faint as she struggled to make sense of the barrage of words that followed, hearing them as if they were coming from far away. “Bastard. Bitch. Whore. Wife and 3 children. How COULD he?” Making any kind of reply was impossible in the face of the torrent of fury and hatred. What could she say anyway? “I didn’t know”, “I’m sorry”…?

Any shuddered as she remembered those eyes boring into her as she backed away and managed to stumble to a seat where she sat entirely still for what seemed like an eternity until the pain in the pit of her stomach abated and she felt she could stand up without falling over.

She’d lost the baby that night. Maybe it was just as well.

Thank God, the train had finally arrived at her station. She gathered her things and prepared to step back into her life of perpetual motion.

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The Eye of the Beholder

Just a wee interlude while I incubate something else….

There I was there other day listening to the Beatles White Album (listening to my youth if I’m honest) when up comes grandson, age 10 and a keen thesbian. “Granny, you know what? Those songs are just like the ones we sing for panto”. Well, thanks for putting me right Sunny Bear, here was me thinking it was nothing less than some of the finest music of the 20th century!

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You might think this is just an excuse to include a picture of my favourite Beatle. You might be right!

Under the Clock

August turned out to be a bit of a hiatus for the blog – not altogether planned, but what can you do! However, here’s a wee story to try and get geared up again for September.

Everyone waits under the clock, I mused. As usual I was horrendously early, Amy horrendously late. But I knew better than to expect anything else of my scatterbrained sister. She’d turn up in her own good time, hair flying, possessions in disarray, full of apologies, and can-you-forgive-me’s, and you-know-what-I’m-like. And of course, I do and I can and we’ll hug and head off for a lovely lunch at Patisserie Valerie – so handy for the station, how clever of you Jen!

But sometimes, just sometimes, why can’t it be me that’s the scatty one? The one who always makes the big entrance,  instantly claims the limelight and has everyone vying for her attention. I sighed. That just wasn’t me. I’d always be the one hovering in the wings, ready to hang up the coats, fill the glasses, pass round the hors d’oevres.  I was the Martha, she the Mary.

My mind wandered thus as I watched the hustle and bustle of the busy station, the ebbs and flows of  arriving and departing passengers. I like people-watching; it’s kind of soothing, endlessly fascinating. That’s probably why I lecture in drama and psychology at the University. Ah there she was, on the other side of the barrier hunting furiously in her bag. She’ll have lost her ticket I thought. I resigned myself to wait a little longer – you can’t get through the barrier without your ticket these days.

All at once I became aware of a figure headed in my direction. Oh my goodness, it was Ethan, almost as I’d made him materialise just by the power of thought. If I’m honest he was never exactly out of my thoughts, ever since that time we worked together on the end of term production. I thought he felt the same but he seemed to just disappear once the show was over. I suspected that he’d overheard me telling that creep Russell Tyler that I wasn’t interested in having a relationship with anyone because I was focused on my career. But all the same, if he’d been really interested surely he’d have asked me about it. I was just glad I hadn’t made a fool of myself over it.

And now he seemed to be heading straight for me with that great big stupid grin on his face. Except… I took a quick look over my shoulder, I’ve been caught out more than once responding to a smile that was actually meant for someone standing behind me. But no, he came right up to me. “Jenny! I was just thinking about you and hey presto there you are!” He was thinking about me??

I didn’t reply and must have stood there like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Ethan’s smile faltered and he looked ready to retreat. I suddenly panicked and grabbed his sleeve. “Ethan! I’m sorry, you just took me by surprise. My dad always used to say that if you stood long enough under the clock at Central Station, you’d see the whole world go by!” Now I’d started, my mouth just wouldn’t stop talking.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Amy standing a few yards away, watching the spectacle of her big sister, the academic, clutching at the sleeve of a rather dishy young man and chattering away nineteen to the dozen. Rather to my surprise she didn’t rush up and demand to be introduced.

I’d just got to the bit where I was starting to explain the whole Russell Tyler thing when Ethan gently put a finger on my lips and shook his head. “I know. And I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch but there was a bit of a family emergency and I’ve not been around for a while. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got off the train and there you were almost as if you were waiting for me.”

Which of course I was. I could hardly breathe as we looked deep into each other’s eyes. I knew I was going to make a complete fool of myself now and I didn’t care. Just before I closed my eyes, I saw Amy give me a thumbs up as she turned around and melted back into the crowd. I’ll say this for my sister, she may be scatty, but she’s a blooming genius when it comes to emotional intelligence…

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Perfect Moments

Looking at old photos can be a bittersweet experience. There are often very mixed sentiments involved in remembering those captured moments. Perhaps because it’s painful to look back at a time that is lost and regretted. Or because the smiles were just for the camera and were hiding some personal turmoil. The pictures can only record a single moment, but looking at them can sometimes stir up a whole complicated set of emotions. I suppose its inevitable that as you get older you are increasingly remembering people that are no longer with us or a self that that seems long gone.

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A moment full of hopes and dreams from our wedding in 1974. Both sets of parent and Father Gerry Hughes, have since passed away, as has our marriage. But it’s a lovely memory nonetheless, and one I can look back on with fondness.

But you can’t keep looking back at the past and blaming yourself for the way things turned out, the if-only’s. I confess that sometimes that tendency is there in me. And then I have to remind myself that the only way to heal is to forgive yourself for your shortcomings and understand that you did the best you could at the time. It’s human to get waylaid by wishing that things could have been different. The trick is to remember that our history is what makes us the people we are today, inevitably older, but hopefully wiser and more tolerant too.

So, while there will always be a few ghosts along the way when we delve into our past, there are also, happily, some moments of perfect joy. Moments which encompass so much more than just the image, but all the emotions associated with it. For me, many of those moments centre around my children and grandchildren, from the instant I first held them in my arms to all the small childhood tragedies and triumphs along the way, when yet another little bit of your heart is captured and gladly given away.

One such instance comes from decades ago, a sunny day at the beach when we’d packed the children into the car for an impromptu picnic, not something we did all that often. It was when we were living in Holland near the border with Germany, so the beach was one on the banks of the River Rhine – there are sandy beaches along its length just at that point. Anyway, the children had run down to the water’s edge and were splashing each other, jumping in and out of the spray.  I have an idea they were wearing those plastic sandals called jellies – or maybe they were just wearing their good sandals!

It was such a lovely day, bright and hot, and I closed my eyes for a moment, breathing deep. I opened them to see the image that has stayed with me all these years – the sunlight sparkling on the water, a heat haze over the wet sand and my four children visible through it as they played on the shore maybe 40 metres away, the sound of their squeals of laughter floating towards me. All wasn’t well with our marriage at this point and I don’t have a photograph, but this was a perfect moment out of time which nothing has ever been able to spoil.

These moment, these tender moments of the heart, I think come much closer to our true memories than any camera can ever capture. Sometimes you look at a photograph and although you know you were there – the proof is laid out in front of you – you can’t actually recall how it felt to be there, how YOU felt. Or you know that the photographer has failed to record the real all-singing, all-dancing you but instead has brutally chosen the moment when you are looking uncomfortable in a badly chosen outfit or were squinting at the sun.

All in all I prefer to close my eyes and explore the inner pictures which are much clearer, much nearer to who I really am and how I remember things. Often those moments aren’t the ones that are imperfectly captured on film, but are instead indelibly imprinted on my heart and remembered with infinite tenderness.

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Here be Dragons

It’s 50 years since man first stepped out on the surface of the Moon. Scarcely anyone will have missed that fact as it’s been splashed all over the news and social media. As one of the millions who watched the whole thing on telly first time around, I’ve enjoyed the coverage, the remembering. In particular there’s been a fascinating  podcast by the BBC World Service called 13 Minutes to the Moon which gives you all the inside stories on every aspect leading up to the momentous moment when Neil Armstrong made mankind’s “giant leap” on to the lunar surface on 20 July 1969. Here’s the link https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2/episodes/downloads – it’s well worth a listen!

I guess it’s in our nature, our very DNA, to want to explore our world and beyond. To find out what’s just beyond that bend in the road up ahead or what we’ll be able to see from the top of that hill – or from another planet! That urge to know can lead us down an unfamiliar lane just to see what’s there, or at the other end of the scale take us on mighty voyages of discovery to encounter whole new continents. Our maps have evolved over the centuries from drawings of shadowy lands marked “here be dragons” to the marvels of pinpoint accuracy we have today. Today WE can explore other continents from our armchairs just by typing a location into Google Earth.

A little voice at the back of my head suggests it’s not the same as actually going there, breathing the air, smelling the smells, feeling the ground beneath your feet. No, it’s not, but it’s what we do. We imagine. We explore the whole world, the whole universe, just by closing our eyes and imagining. Our brain is like a Tardis. For non-Doctor Who fans, the Tardis is the Doctor’s ship that can take him anywhere in time and space. The point about the Tardis is that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Just like our brains. Just like our ability to imagine places we’ve never been, futures that haven’t happened yet. And then we can come right back down to earth and go and sit in the garden to enjoy a sunny day in the here and now.

Neither are our explorations confined to filling in the unknown areas on the map. We also delve into the past, constantly trying to piece together the elusive history of mankind, not to mention of the very universe itself, right from the Big Bang until a projected point in the future when it will all presumably come to an end. We want to know. We need to know. And it’s not just the universe, there’s a whole world of self-discovery to be explored too. When things happen to us, when we go through big challenges in our lives, we often need to dig deep into ourselves in order to process these events and if necessary overcome them. And even without those challenges, most people have an insatiable curiosity to know more about where they came from, about the influences that have made them who they are. It’s all part of our human need to understand ourselves and where we fit in to the grand scheme of things.

So, when President Kennedy announced in 1961 that America would send a man to the moon and bring him safely back home again before the end of the decade, he wasn’t just expressing a vague ambition. He was tapping in to that never ending desire of mankind to be forever expanding the boundaries of the unknown. (Not to mention the USA’s obsession with getting ahead of the Russians in the space race!) JFK was in effect committing the resources of a nation to what was at the time an impossible aim. Whatever it took to develop the technology and the systems to reach the goal were devoted to the task – millions and millions of dollars, thousands and thousands of people hours.

There were many successes and failures along the way, including the tragic fire which engulfed Apollo 1 and claimed the lives of the entire crew. But the setbacks only made Nasa all the more determined to learn from their mistakes and do whatever it took to make things work. Until finally man did succeed in escaping the shackles of earth’s gravity and walk on another world.

BUT… however profound and wonderful that achievement was – and it was truly an unforgettable moment when the whole watching world heard the words “the Eagle has landed” and breathed a great collective sigh of relief – think of this… What if an American President, or some other world leader, announced an intention to eliminate hunger or pollution or homelessness by the end of a decade? What if there was no limit to the resources that were poured into fulfilling even one of those aims? In that case, it could be that if and when mankind ever again stands on the surface of the Moon watching Earthrise, we could do so in the knowledge that our home planet has become a fitting haven for all the souls that live there. It’s not impossible, after all look what we can achieve when everyone works together towards a common goal

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