So, with all this extra time on your hands, have you been learning a new language or a musical instrument or finally getting down to reading War and Peace? No, me neither. I haven’t even bothered to download Tik Tok though I do enjoy watching other people’s silliness, and I’m now on Day 66 of my “jigsaw a day for 80 days challenge” on my iPad.
To be honest, my daily jigsaw is probably the only thing I’ve done absolutely every day since this whole lockdown business started, and that includes getting up, going out for a walk and doing the washing up. Yes folks, I’ve had a day or two under the duvet, and I’ve even been known to leave the dishes overnight. Mind you I sometimes do that anyway, it doesn’t take being in lockdown…
On the whole though, I do get up, get dressed and go out every day – one has to keep up some kind of standard doesn’t one? And I’ve learned not to beat myself up for all the things I’m NOT doing. I got the ironing board out six days ago and it’s still sitting there beside a pile of crumpled clothes, and as to the novel I should be half way through by now, well… Trouble is when you have all the time in the world to do something, it tends to TAKE you all the time in the world, doesn’t it? I think I might have said that before somewhere. Is it starting to feel like groundhog day? Probably. Except that I’ll not be a concert pianist at the end of it…
Way back in April I think it was, my crochet project started well, I even posted a picture every day on Instagram, even though I have only a very hazy idea what Instagram is actually for…
I really enjoyed watching the needlework grow day by day, stitch by stitch; seeing the colour gradation in the wool develop and gradually progress from light through to darker grey. I found myself fully absorbed in concentrating on the intricate pattern while listening to lots of BBC radio dramas and podcasts (You can’t do a project like this while watching telly!) But then something a little odd happened. Normally when you’re approaching the completion of a project you can’t wait for it to be finished so that you can admire the fruits of your labours. But this time, once I’d got through all the shades of grey and had started on the final purple section, I started to feel more and more reluctant to keep going. Thoughts came into my head such as “The size is all wrong”, “It’s not turning out like I thought”, “Who am I going to give it to, who’d want a shawl anyway?”
I was in fact well and truly stalled. I started to get distracted by making little rainbows, finishing off a blanket, deciding to knit handwarmers I could sell on Ebay. The shawl got relegated to my work bag (newly acquired for the purpose from said Ebay when the sight of the unfinished work started making me feel guilty and uncomfortable). At least, I thought, it has a lovely bag to languish in while it waits for the day when I feel the urge to get it out and finally finish it off.
Thinking about it now, I suppose that the whole point of embarking upon the shawl project was just the project itself, the challenge of being engrossed in something intricate and absorbing. The closer I got to finishing it, the more resistance I felt. Because I hadn’t realised that I didn’t particularly want to have a shawl as much as I wanted to be making one.
It’s not just the lockdown. Many times in life you don’t really appreciate the purpose of an event or an undertaking until you look back and start to understand the effect it has had on you, or the inner resources you’ve had to discover or develop to get through to the other side. I’ve seen this time and time again as I’ve explored aspects of my family history in this blog, each time gaining new perspectives and insights from those I might have had as a child or when I was at a different stage in my life.
I’ve just read a post from a fellow blogger entitled “Let Life Change You”, which kind of sums up what I’m getting at. Getting though lockdown, or indeed life, isn’t about having a balance sheet of goals attained. It sounds like a cliche, but it IS all about the journey, the moment by moment engagement in the minutiae of our lives. And that’s true whether we are focused on some grand plan or just trying to get through until tomorrow.
I know it’s a tiny, tiny example, but getting stuck on my shawl project represented a need for me to press my own pause button and refocus. And that meant overcoming the feeling that leaving something unfinished is some kind of failure, which in turn involved a shift in my perception of success. Such weighty notions from such a little incident!
The shawl can wait until I am in the right frame of mind to enjoy the task of finishing it off. In the meantime, there’s always the daily puzzle and the rainbows to keep me going. Oh, and by the way, since I starting writing this a couple of days ago I’ve actually got through that pile of ironing and put the ironing board away – hooray!
I’ve made various attempts over the last month to express my thoughts on our current shared predicament – “Life in a Time of Plague”, “A New Normal” or what about “Following the Science?”. But they all end up deteriorating into a diatribe against the state of the world and our society, and who wants to read that? You’ll be glad to know that I decided to spare you – and myself! Although… if, as “they” claim, they have at least temporarily solved the problem of rough sleeping, why did it take a world-wide pandemic to solve a problem that has been so patently crying out for a solution for years and years and years…. Just askin’.
Anyway, 10 albums. You’ve probably seen this Facebook challenge – something along the lines of Albums that greatly influenced my life/taste in music, one a day for 10 consecutive days, no explanation, no reviews, just album covers… I followed with mild interest as various Facebook friends took it up. Until one by one my children started doing it and I found myself connecting with many of the albums they were picking out – ones that were part of their growing up and therefore part of the fabric of my life at various junctures. Some few I might even have passed on to them!
So of course then you start considering what music you would choose and one thing leads to another… The best thing about the album challenge is that it gives you something else to think about than the daily Coronavirus press conference or the debate about whether Dominic Cummings should get the boot or not. (YES!!!) Music is a marvellous alternative and also a wonderful way to be reminded of a time when your life wasn’t constrained by having to wash your hands every five minutes and crossing the road in order to avoid getting too close to someone coming along in the other direction. The Facebook rules are that there should be no explanations for your choices, fair enough. But this isn’t Facebook…
#1 – All Things Must Pass. Someone gave me this album for my 21st birthday, so it’s been with me a long, long time. I think I’ve mentioned before that George was always my favourite Beatle. At first, like any teenager, its just the one you fancy the most, but gradually I suppose I found something in his words and music that chimed with me, and he seemed such a gentle philosophical soul.
Why are you still crying? Your pain is now through Please, forget those teardrops Let me take them from you The love you are blessed with This world’s waiting for So let out your heart, please, please From behind that locked door
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here Here comes the sun, here comes the sun and I say it’s all right
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here Here comes the sun, here comes the sun and I say it’s all right
#2 – Jesus Christ Superstar. Before there was the musical, or the film, there was the ALBUM! I remember a group of us, must have been 1970 or 71, being invited round to friend Shuggie’s student flat and him producing this record with a flourish. “You have to listen to this!” And listen we did, to all two hours of it. We’d not really heard anything like it before, we were impressed! And it also felt quite subversive – there was a lot of controversy at the time about whether this portrayal of Jesus was blasphemous. Seems almost tame nowadays.
#3 – Carole King Tapestry. You’ve Got a Friend, Natural Woman, Beautiful… Perfection really.
Tonight you’re mine, completely You give your love so sweetly Tonight the light of love is in your eyes But will you love me tomorrow?
Is this a lasting treasure Or just a moment’s pleasure Can I believe the magic of your sighs Will you still love me tomorrow?
Tonight with words unspoken You say that I’m the only one But will my heart be broken When the night meets the morning sun?
I’d like to know that your love Is love I can be sure of So tell me now and I won’t ask again Will you still love me tomorrow? Will you still love me tomorrow?
#4 – Strings and Things by the Corries. My Mum used to be fond of the Corries. She’d refer to them as Ronnie and Roy as if they were personal friends. Maybe they were, all sorts of famous-ish people used to come in to the Fairy Dell, the cake shop in Byres Road where she worked when we were at school. It was quite near the BBC Studios so I suppose they would pop in for their fancy cakes and pastries.
I can’t remember where I picked up this album – we called them LP’s in those days by the way. It might have been a birthday present, but I have an idea that I might have bought it for myself with the money I earned as a Saturday Girl in the City Bakeries, also a cake shop in Byres Road but considerably downmarket from the posh Fairy Dell.
I think this was the first LP I ever owned and I always loved it. Ronnie and Roy – see, I’m doing it now! – had these new instruments called combolins, a kind of guitar/mandoline/harp hybrid invented by Roy. The result is a dreamy, tender collection of some of their favourite songs.
#5 – Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan. Lay Lady Lay. Need I say more?
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Whatever colors you have in your mind I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seenStay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile Why wait any longer for the world to begin You can have your cake and eat it too Why wait any longer for the one you love When he’s standing in front of you
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead I long to see you in the morning light I long to reach for you in the night Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead
#6 – The Concert in Central Park. Of course I cheated when I chose this one. It was really just a way of including most of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs that were scattered through various albums from the sixties. But there is something special about this live concert when the two reunited in 1982 for a special free performance which attracted half a million people. The atmosphere really is electric and I always like the little imperfections and irregularities which happen in live performance.
Peter, my ex, played the guitar and sang. As a student, he was always the one surrounded by a group of girls hanging on to every note. Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, the Beatles all featured in his repertoire, as did the Scottish folk songs that were the mainstay of many a heartfelt singalong – Wild Mountain Thyme, Marie’s Wedding, Skye Boat Song… He wrote songs too. I’m not going to analyse this any further – you can draw your own conclusions.
#7 – The Beatles Revolver. Of course as with Simon and Garfunkel the problem is just WHICH Beatles album to choose. I do love Here, There and Everywhere though, so I suppose that’s what’s tipped the scales in favour of Revolver. And yes, it has occurred to me that my choices would seem to indicate that I’m a hopeless romantic, a bit hippy dippy, even despite the (possibly delusional) carapace of worldly cynicism that I believe I present to the world. Turns out that’s what this challenge is all about, thinking back to when you were first aware of a particular artist or song, and why it has always stayed with you. Who you were then and are now is a big part of that. It’s like the way certain smells can instantly transport you back to a particular time or place, and the feelings associated with it. Johnson’s baby powder, freshly mown grass, dried seaweed on a beach.
Here, making each day of the year Changing my life with a wave of her hand Nobody can deny that there’s something there There, running my hands through her hair Both of us thinking how good it can be Someone is speaking But she doesn’t know he’s there…
I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the Beatles. I would have been 8 when their first single came out, Love Me Do in 1962, and no, I don’t remember that specifically, I looked it up! I recall that even at primary school people would argue about whether John or Paul was the best. Of course I could smugly stand apart from that as I liked George. I don’t remember anyone ever preferring Ringo, sorry Ringo!
And then there’s the Beatles/Rolling Stones dichotomy! In my circle you liked one or the other, seldom both. The Stones were more alarming, their music more rock and roll, probably more adventurous. It’s not that I don’t like to listen to them today, I do, but they don’t make my top 10. It occurs to me that preferring the boys next door to the bad boys of rock might seem rather safe, perhaps even bland. But I can’t help that. I suppose it’s part of your personality as to which music excites you, stays with you, even defines you. But you need to do this challenge without judging yourself or imagining how others will judge you. You can’t pop in some Bowie or Queen or Iron Maiden just to make yourself seem more edgy!
#8 – Angels and Electricity. I wish I could remember how this album came to me. All I can say is I’m glad it did because it ticks all my boxes – melodic, thoughtful, accoustic, rather haunting. And I do like a good tune!
#9 Graceland, Paul Simon. I chose this as much for the African beats and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo band. It just gets to a place deep inside.
#10 – Songbird. Like most of her many fans, I only became aware of Eva Cassidy after her tragic death at the age of 33 in 1996. If I could only keep one of these 10 albums, I’d give up all the others for this one. It’s the one that will always get to me, console me, grab me and make me listen. There’s just something about this girl, how she takes each song right into her heart and pours it out in her own unique jazzy bluesy way. Of course the fact that she’s no longer with us makes it all the more poignant. But what a wonderful legacy to leave behind you.
As the lockdown continues, we are all to a greater or lesser degree thrown back on our own resources, especially if we’re not on the front line. Recently when I sent the link to my sisters for our weekly Zoom meet up, one of them replied “Already? Weeks are blinks, days are blurred, hours are moments.” It gets you like that, doesn’t it? Sometimes when I’m struggling to find a structure for the day I even find myself facing an existential crisis – who are you anyway? Getting up and doing the dishes normally dispels such unhelpful thought processes.
When I look back to my past, I realise that I have come through many times in my life when I have been constrained by an unlooked for external force – marriage breakdown, lack of money, bereavement, illness. A Covid-19 pandemic is only the latest manifestation. Everyone keeps on saying things will have to change, it will be different now. So it has always been and will always be. What we have to do is roll up our sleeves and get on with it.
Yesterday, 24 April, we in the UK reached the one month mark in our Covid-19 lockdown. It’s a rather odd experience – are we all in it together, or in isolation…? I’m lucky. I live in a place which is not very densely populated; going for a walk or even doing a shop in the local supermarket doesn’t cause great social distancing problems. And I have access to some garden space so most afternoons at the moment are spent sitting in the sun getting on with my crochet while listening to a podcast. The crochet is a rather complicated shawl in case you’re wondering, one of those projects you put aside until you have enough time for it. Well, if not now, then when…?
I’ve got loads of podcasts downloaded on to my phone, and I rather enjoy just sitting there listening while my hands are busy. For example, the BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon, all about the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969, and then series 2 about the rescue of Apollo 13 when that mission went disastrously wrong. It’s escapism literally out of this world! I’ll be listening to Death in Ice Valley next, if you want another recommendation, and The Doorstep Murder looks good too.
This all makes it sound as if I’ve entered a kind of dreamlike state within my own personal lockdown, and of course I haven’t. I’m not one of those people who report going stir crazy because they can’t go out, but I greatly miss physical contact with my children and grandchildren even though I do catch the occasional glimpses of them on Zoom. It’s just that the sun makes it all so much more bearable than the early weeks when you were quite glad not to go out because it was cold and wet most of the time. And you would listen obsessively to 24-hour media to hear the same old news and opinions being rehearsed over and over again, as if hearing it for the umpteenth time would somehow change the basic fact that there is a global pandemic and the world is in quarantine.
I don’t do that any more – I catch up morning and evening, and the rest of the time try not to allow the Coronavirus to take over my every waking thought. I’ve learned over the past month that I need to strive to set my own agenda for the day – if I let the news do it I just end up getting all hot and bothered about what should and shouldn’t have been done, is being done now, will be done in the future. The trouble is that everyone has an opinion, from the US President who seems to think that if we injected ourselves with cleaning fluid we could make this whole thing go away, to the great British public who have largely adopted a kind of Dunkirk spirit embodied by the marvellous 99 year old veteran, Captain Tom Moore.
I remember the moon landing being the go-to news the minute you got home from school in 1969 (I was 15 that year), rather in the way Covid-19 is now, or at the beginning of the year Brexit – remember Brexit? – before the world changed and we became obsessed with something rather bigger. Back in the sixties families would huddle round our wee black and white televisions watching events in real time, along with, it seemed, most of the rest of the world. There really was a huge Earth-wide collective holding of breath until those Apollo astronauts finally touched down safely after their perilous missions. That’s the way I remember it anyhow.
We tend, we humans, to come together at times of great triumph and disaster – royal weddings, sporting victories, wars, natural disasters, the death of a much revered personage. We remember those events, we remember where we were when we learned of the death of Princess Diana, or JFK, or John Lennon – insert your own iconic figure here – and the memory of them becomes a shared cultural experience that we use as reference points as part of our very identity. Funny thing is we often feel as if we were actually there when in reality all we’ve done is watch it on television.
So with the Coronavirus. There will, eventually, be life after lockdown. We will be like the Londoners emerging from the Underground Stations after an air-raid warning in the midst of the blitz, blinking and coughing in the daylight, battered and bruised but glad to be alive.
In the meantime, I suppose we just need to do what it takes to get past this. We can’t see enemy planes flying overhead, but the peril is no less real, casualties heartbreaking, those on the front line heroic. I have misgivings about the curtailment of our civil liberties, questions about exactly WHICH science it is the politicians are following and what seem like broken promises over PPE or testing. We must continue asking these questions, but for now we are largely suspending our disbelief and focusing on the bigger picture.
And I am finding a genuine sense of us all being in it together – when you venture to the shops or walk along the street, most people nod and smile as they neatly step off the pavement in order to stay 2 metres away, or chat as they wait in line to be allowed in to the supermarket. When we go out and do our Thursday shout-out for the NHS, neighbours grin and wave at each other – in fact I’ve seen people from across the street that I’d never even met until all this started.
I’m learning to be less hard on myself now that I’ve finally accepted that left to myself my two favourite pastimes are sleeping and eating. Any day is a success which consist of more than just getting up, having breakfast and then going back to bed until it’s time to eat again (I’m not kidding!). I try to write every day, box sets are good, but really, it’s knitting and crochet that are getting me through. Sometimes the only thing that helps is to get the hook out and make yet another rainbow….
One of the few poems I remember learning at school is “The Horses” by Edwin Muir. It tells of the aftermath of a nuclear war, but nonetheless has a kind of uncanny resonance for today when a rogue virus has changed our world out of all recognition. When everything we have taken for granted – unlimited travel, the global marketplace, unconstrained growth – has turned against us and thrown us back on our own resources of resilience and ingenuity in order to overcome a silent, invisible and deadly enemy.
“We listened to our breathing and were afraid”
Of course some of the fruits of globalization and growth are now being employed in our struggle. We use social media when we cannot touch one another. If we can, our work comes to our home instead of us travelling there. We are dipping into our reserves of wealth to support those who can no longer support themselves. Scientists and politicians learn and share their knowledge of what we need to do in order to survive.
It is all halting and imperfect, but I do believe that mostly we are doing our best as far as that goes. They say that Covid-19 affects us indiscriminately. That is blatantly untrue. The virus hits hardest those without a home, a reliable income, a garden, an ethnicity which hasn’t suffered decades of oppression. The disadvantaged remain disadvantaged. And some of them number among those heroic humans who brave the danger in order to render service to others – nurses, doctors, care workers, delivery drivers, binmen, shop assistants… I wish I could list them all.
“That bad old world that swallowed its children quick”
And on the other side, perhaps a re-balancing. Perhaps a world where we do not travel profligately from one end of the planet to the other just to have a meeting. Perhaps a world where our first consideration is towards those with no resources of their own. Perhaps a world where we have learned to appreciate and value what true heroism is.
I know. It all seems too much to hope for, crazy optimism. But I woke this morning with the spring sunshine shining in my window. Those rays seemed full of hope and forgiveness. They seemed to remind me that nature is always there, always has been, ready to embrace us, to remind us that we are part of the natural world.
We have tried to master nature, and have brought calamity upon ourselves – global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ozone layer, of habitats, of the very air that we breathe. Why has it taken a 17 year old activist from Sweden to show us what we have known for decades – that we were destroying our own ecosystem? I’ll tell you why – it’s because the vested interests of the rich, powerful and greedy have always won out and left consideration for the environment floundering in the shadows. No wonder Greta Thunberg is angry; I’m angry, we should all be angry.
If it would take a global catastrophe to make us stop and take stock, well here it is! Here’s our chance to take a wider view and DEMAND that things must be different when we are finally released from our enforced isolation. Let’s not pretend it would be okay to go back to the way things were. In my crazy optimism I’m hoping for something better than that. I’m hoping for a world where we don’t ignore the consequences of unbridled wealth creation and tragic imbalances between rich and poor. A world of true respect for each other and for our planet, for Gaia.
The Horses by Edwin Muir (1889-1959)
Barely a twelvemonth after The seven days war that put the world to sleep, Late in the evening the strange horses came. By then we had made our covenant with silence, But in the first few days it was so still We listened to our breathing and were afraid. On the second day The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer. On the third day a warship passed us, heading north, Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter Nothing. The radios dumb; And still they stand in corners of our kitchens, And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms All over the world. But now if they should speak, If on a sudden they should speak again, If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak, We would not listen, we would not let it bring That old bad world that swallowed its children quick At one great gulp. We would not have it again. Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep, Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow, And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness. The tractors lie about our fields; at evening They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting. We leave them where they are and let them rust: ‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’ We make our oxen drag our rusty plows, Long laid aside. We have gone back Far past our fathers’ land. And then, that evening Late in the summer the strange horses came. We heard a distant tapping on the road, A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again And at the corner changed to hollow thunder. We saw the heads Like a wild wave charging and were afraid. We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield. Or illustrations in a book of knights. We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited, Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent By an old command to find our whereabouts And that long-lost archaic companionship. In the first moment we had never a thought That they were creatures to be owned and used. Among them were some half a dozen colts Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world, Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden. Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard people being referred to as being “of their time”. It’s usually to excuse something about their lives that today we would find reprehensible or unacceptable. The Me Too movement is just the latest manifestation of our long painful progress towards the concept that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, colour, creed or orientation. And that it’s not alright just to sweep it all under the carpet and leave the burden of getting over it on the victim’s shoulders.
Does it make a difference when we discover that our heroes have feet of clay? When we learn that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress, Nelly Ternan; or that Chaucer is likely to have raped a woman, one Cecilia Chaumpaigne; or that the charismatic John F Kennedy turned out to be a terrible womaniser and numbered Marilyn Monroe among his probable conquests? I don’t know… Perhaps one does look differently at an author’s work when you understand more about the dark side of where it came from. Or can the truth, the art, stand independently from the artist? I am mindful of a couple of quotes from the late, great George Harrison:
I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else.
Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because its the very best of me and the part I give most willingly.
I suppose I’m largely content to go with that and read a book or listen to music on the understanding that I am sharing a vision, a truth, wherever it might have come from. That is valid in itself. If I know or learn something detrimental about the writer, that may or may not cause me to look differently at the work. After all, many of the lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes, our dark times. And I still feel inspired by the words of JFK when he declared in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Whether or not he actually ‘borrowed’ that phrase from his old headmaster or was a less than faithful husband, they are nonetheless stirring words, worth repeating.
And I still think of Charles Dickens as a great Victorian novelist who cared about the social conditions of his day and wrote most movingly about the plight of the poor. If he wasn’t in truth the unblemished family man he’d have you believe, he did on the other hand engage in many philanthropic deeds including setting up a home for “fallen women”. Perhaps I will read the cosy fireside scenes with a somewhat more cynical eye and make a mental nod to the hidden Ms Ternan, but I can still enjoy these marvellous books and wonderful writing.
As to more contemporary transgressions. With each new revelation about the movie industry, I find there are now certain films I can never watch in the same way again, if at all. Fiction or not, I don’t want to be drawn into falling in love with that handsome leading man, or a director who, it turns out, sees sex as a weapon to be wielded. These are more than private indiscretions, this is an abuse of power, a whole rotten system which needs to be called out for what it is. Me too!
So I suppose I’m saying that moral ambiguity does surely make a difference and does force you to encompass a wider picture of what you thought you knew. You might think “How amazing that someone like that could produce something so beautiful” or “No wonder he says that, look what was happening in his life when he wrote it”. Of course all this only highlights how little we really know of another person’s soul, of their motivations – someone like what, exactly? We see everything through the prism of our own experience, understanding and yes, preconceptions. Not to mention what we read in the press or social media.
What about right and wrong, black and white? Yes, there’s that too. If a thing’s wrong then it’s wrong – isn’t it? It’s wrong to kill. Even if it’s in self-defence or to save someone’s life? It’s wrong to steal. Even if it’s to feed your starving family? It’s wrong to lie. Is there anyone who hasn’t bent the truth or concealed it in order to protect the innocent? I suppose what I’m saying is that I always want to know the WHY; the story behind the headline, the circumstances, the mitigating factors, the actual facts and why they are being presented in the way they are.
Here’s a final headline for you to ponder: BODY OF PROSTITUTE FOUND IN ALLEY. I remember being stopped in my tracks by that one. I suddenly found myself feeling angry that some poor woman whose life had been cut short in the most brutal way possible had to suffer the final indignity of that heartless and judgemental headline. I found myself wondering what had happened to her in life to have brought her to the point where she was selling her body to men in a back alley. She could have been someone’s mother or sister or daughter or wife. She was a woman.
The paper could have chosen any of those words to describe her; they could have said ‘female body’. They could have had some consideration for the family who might have had to read about their loved one in such dismissive terms. But no, they went for the sensational. They summed her up in an attention grabbing headline for the sake of selling more papers and making the rest of us feel quite comfortable and safe, because, after all, it hadn’t happened to US, but to one of THEM.
I’m working on something a bit special (and time consuming!) for my 50th post next week. In the meantime, for post number 49, I thought I’d share with you eight clips from the Internet that have inspired me in recent months. Mostly they have encouraged me to think a little differently about the world, given me hope or joy, or have even restored my faith in humanity – maybe they’ll do the same for you. At the very least I hope they raise a smile or two!
So, in no particular order, here are some random ideas worth spreading… (You might need to activate the sound on each one – copying seems sometimes to turn it off)