I’m Back – Am I?

I’ve not written anything since June-ish. Well nothing that I’ve published anyway. It just seems that I have either nothing to say, or so much it’s too much, you know that feeling? My head’s been like mince to be honest.

I’ve been knitting, made lots and lots of handwarmers to sell on Ebay for Christmas. Haven’t sold any yet, though it is still only October, so fingers crossed.

What else? I go in to Glasgow once a week on the bus – being a Samaritan makes me a key worker, so I get to go in to the big city wearing one of my home made face masks. Otherwise… well I just stay at home like everyone else. I have to confess that it’s not much of a hardship, it’s pretty much my lifestyle anyway! Except that I do miss the grandchildren and the odd lunch with a friend.

I zoom with my children and sisters once a week, which means I see them more than I would normally, even though it’s not the same as being able to hug them obviously.

I’ve also been keeping in touch with work, virtually. Though as I work part time for an events company, it’s pretty minimal, as you can imagine. Mostly just keeping up to date with all the events that have been cancelled!

I don’t find it’s good to do much introspection these days, not good to start remembering how things used to be, or wishing I’d done this or that or regretting the trips that had to be postponed until who knows when. I’m even avoiding thinking about what I’ll do once all the restrictions are lifted and we can go freely into the world again. I think that’s partly because it’s hard to believe that will ever happen, especially as we’ve just been told about a whole new series of limitations on our movements to combat a local increase in the virus.

We talk a lot in our zoom calls about people not following lockdown rules, about them not quarantining properly when they come back into the country from being on holiday – and why would you even go on holiday when there’s a world wide pandemic going on for heaven’s sake? We talk about how unbelievably awful Trump is and how unbearable he’s going to be now that he’s “beaten” the virus. And we express our hope that he’ll be beaten by Biden in the forthcoming American election.

Just, I suppose, like zoom calls all over the world.

Spending one’s time productively is always a constant struggle, not just in a period of enforced idleness, but it is harder just now, isn’t it? Being thrown back on your own resources isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes I feel I’d be quite happy to stay at home forever, never go out. And yet I do have my weekly excursion in to Glasgow, my trips to the shops, the occasional visit from my daughter (strictly business I assure you!) and the odd walk along by the river, saying hello to suitably distanced passers by. They all remind me that I am, in the end, and however reluctantly sometimes, part of the one human race.

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Lockdown Project

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.

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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…

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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?”

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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.

workbag

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.

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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!

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10 Albums

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…

all things must pass

#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

jc superstar

#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.

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#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?

 

strings and things

#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.

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#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

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#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.

Beatles "Revolver" Album Cover

#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!

angels and electricity

#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!

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#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.

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#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.

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One Month On

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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…?

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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.

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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.

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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….

 

Suicide, Samaritans & Me – a guest post

Today’s post is a bit of a departure for me as this is the first time I’ve invited a contribution from a friend. Actually I’m probably taking shameless advantage of the fact that my friend hasn’t quite got around to setting up their own blog yet! Anyway, here it is in full, with kind permission …

Suicide, Samaritans & Me.

I think you can say that Samaritans saved my life – in fact I know you can.

Not in the conventional sense though, I wasn’t talked down from a bridge, or off a railway platform or away from an overdose of tablets. I think what saved my life was become a Samaritan.

In 2010, from the outside I had a made a success of my life and career. Happily married, two wonderful sons (one at public school), Director of a Travel Company, four bedroomed house with double garage – all the things one thinks one should aspire to – the trappings of success, all good.

Except I knew it wasn’t.

Following the financial meltdown of 2008/9, the company wasn’t making a profit, redundancies were looming. The huge house came with an equally huge mortgage and if the job went, the house went, the public school went, and everything would crumble to dust. As a husband I would have failed. As a father I would have failed.

And that’s the thing, when you can’t see a way out of the situation the only solution is to take yourself out of it. So, it was on March 15th 2010 (beware the Ides of March) that I was staring at a pile of paracetamol tablets I had acquired over recent weeks thinking, how many is enough…?

Now I had no idea and whatever I may have thought then, I realise now that a paracetamol overdose is not a “nice” way to go. The liver functions shut down slowly and death can be long, slow and painful. Still there I was in the house all alone about to try and end my life.

I’ve no memory of how many I took – all I can recall is going to bed and hoping, naively, that I would slip quietly, blissfully away from life. It didn’t happen though, I woke up later, possibly the following day with stomach pains but very much alive.

Killing yourself is harder than you think – time for Plan B (always good to have a Plan B).

If tablets weren’t going to do it, what about carbon monoxide poisoning? Looks so straightforward in films and on TV – hosepipe from the exhaust, engine running, slowly lose consciousness – that’s what I thought.

So off to Homebase to buy hose, what length? Does it come in exhaust pipe to passenger side window length? No? well 2 metres should be enough, oh and some gaffa tape too, we don’t want the hose slipping off the pipe do we?

Suicide attempt take two. It was a Sunday afternoon, 2nd May 2010 actually, (you never forget the dates you attempt to take your own life) – the house was quiet, I’ll just slip away unnoticed. One of the advantages of suicide attempts by carbon monoxide poisoning in East Kilbride is that the town has a number of light industrial estates that are empty on Sunday afternoons. So that’s where I drove, parked up, connected the hose, turned the engine on and waited to die.  But I didn’t, again – something to do with catalytic converters maybe? After a few hours of not dying I drove home.

And there I fell apart.

For the first time in my life I admitted to my wife that I needed help – I knew I couldn’t go on anymore.

She was wonderful, ringing 999 or 111, I have no idea which, and later that very night I found myself admitted to the psychiatric ward of Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride. And there over the next week, I talked, talked like I’d never talked before, to nurses, doctors, counsellors and, on one occasion I recall, the chaplain – talked about me, properly, about how I was feeling, what I was anxious about, my childhood, everything in fact – and you know what, it felt good. At last the mask we present to the world was lifted – I was opening my soul.

I came out on the Friday, not a changed person but at least a person able to talk – and when I saw my GP soon afterwards, he said, keep talking, find a Counsellor and talk to them – so I did.

First weekly, then twice a month, then monthly over a period of almost 3 years. And you know what? – it was good. We talked about everything, family, childhood, relationships, career, sexuality, aspirations, fears, the whole works. I was being stripped back to the factory setting and being rebooted – and it felt good.

I even opened up for the first time about my deepest concern, that there was something not quite right with me… something I’d known, or at least suspected since I was about nine years old. And she said so what, it’s who you are… and I felt like the biggest, heaviest weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Once you have added suicide to your list of options it never leaves you. In the years that followed occasionally the box would be opened and the idea considered, usually briefly, as life took a bad turn, before the lid was firmly shut.

And Samaritans I hear you cry? It’s in the title yet not mentioned so far….

Well by 2016 I knew who I was and I  knew that if I’d talked about everything over the years leading up to what I was now calling my “episode” I’d never have found myself buying hosepipe from Homebase.

And I got a notion in my head, if talking could have benefitted me, could it yet still benefit others and the idea of becoming volunteer counsellor started forming in my head. I looked about and by chance came across details of an Information Day for Samaritans – what have I got to lose I thought, so along I went.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but some part of me thought it was all about talking desperate people out of buying hosepipes or large amounts of paracetamol, and after a brief induction I’d be on the phone, talking and saving lives.

I came away from that Induction Day enlightened as to the aim of Samaritans, the methods and the potential benefits. If its possible to be hooked, I was.

I applied, was interviewed and accepted. I was now on the path to giving something back to people, people who in some cases would be going through some of the issues I was. (There’s one issue I’ve not mentioned yet!)

First day of training, eight other, possibly anxious, souls. And three trainers, who all seemed to be so kind, supportive, generous and non-judgemental people.

Share something about yourself with the Group they said – and so I did for probably only the third time ever, I said out loud, that I was Transgender (that’s the thing I hadn’t mentioned before).

And the reaction?? Total and utter disinterest. If it is no big deal to these people I thought, why am I making so much of it in my head?

It dawned on me on my way home, here was somewhere I could be the real me, for the first time in my life I had found unconditional acceptance. I knew this was where I wanted to be, this was an organisation I wanted to be part of. Because I also knew that I needed to be the real me. All the apparent reasons for my “episode” in 2010 masked one deeper reason – acceptance of who I really was.

That was in September 2016 and from that day I really felt that I could make my Gender Transition work – and Samaritans of Glasgow made that possible.

Since then I’ve talked to hundreds of people on the phone, and I hope in some small way I’ve been able to help them.

I’ve spoken at the Branch Conference on several occasions, run seminars, mentored new Samaritans and led training groups.  Prior to Transition the thought of addressing over one hundred people in a lecture theatre would have left me running for the hills. But now I do it, I enjoy it and I live my life as deep down I always knew it was meant to be lived.

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And that is down to all the wonderful people at Samaritans of Glasgow – you enabled me to take the first steps on the road to being the true me and for that I will always be so so grateful.

Helena R, April 2020.

I first met Helena when she joined the Samaritans back in 2016, and I was one of the “kind, supportive and non-judgemental” trainers (her words, not mine!) who were tasked with leading that group of nine anxious souls through the intensive process of becoming a Samaritan. I well remember that first session. “That’s a new one,” I thought. And it’s not true that we were disinterested, Helena, but, you’re right, it was no big deal to us. As a trainer, the most important thing about the group of people sitting in front of me isn’t their age or wealth or gender. It’s the fact that they want to be Samaritans. It’s the thing that binds us together. I know, I’ve been one for nearly 20 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Horses

horses running

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.

sunshine rays

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.

A Lady Called Anabel

I met Anabel a couple of weeks ago, the day before our current Corona lockdown. She was selling The Big Issue on Buchanan Street. At first I thought she was handing out fliers for some show or other – she had a theatrical look about her. But no, it was The Big Issue. I bought one and we got chatting.

She’s kind of…unique. Tiny, bird-like, seemingly fragile and yet incredibly strong. As with anyone who finds themselves homeless and on the street, she’s been through a lot. But meeting her was the highlight of my day. Not because her resilience impressed me, though it did; nor because she was so open and friendly and brave, though that too. It was an indefinable something, a connection I felt the minute we began to talk. You know that way when you unexpectedly discover a soul mate and everything they say makes complete sense and relates to something in your own life…

Moments like that seem part of a different life now. Now that we’re stuck at home keeping our distance from everyone else. I have to confess that I didn’t personally look upon it as much of a hardship, being a somewhat anti-social character not much given to hanging out in pubs and other crowded noisy places. So staying at home and not having to feel guilty about it actually suits me just fine. Or so you would have thought.

Truth to tell, unsociable sod that I may be, I’m not really very good at it! I find I miss having places to go, things to do. Even when I’ve had to force myself to get up and out, it’s always worth it in the end because there’s always that unexpected conversation or chance meeting – like the one with Anabel – that takes you out of yourself and reminds you that humans are indeed social creatures. Even me!

So there I was last night banging away on my saucepan doing the Clap for Carers with all my might and feeling that sense of involvement with all the other people who were out on their doorstep doing the same. We waved at each other before we stepped back inside. It felt good to be connected.

And this morning, for some reason, I’m finding the way cleared to do what I’ve been putting off for a while now – write in this blog. It’s not a big thing, but when you keep putting it off it becomes a huge barrier. And when normal inertia is added to the thought that now you’ve got lots of time and no excuse not to get on with it, it somehow becomes insurmountable. But I tricked myself today, I just started writing before I had time to think about it.

And there you are, I’ve managed to conjure up some thoughts about my take on the catastrophe that’s obsessing the whole world right now. It IS like being in some apocalypse movie – things were different before and may never be the same afterwards, who knows? But I’d like to think the afterwards will encompass taking a walk down Buchanan Street and finding Anabel firmly ensconced in her pitch just outside the House of Fraser selling The Big Issue in her utterly charming and unique way.

Click this link to read about Anabel, by kind permission of The Big Issue and the lady herself.

Anabel, 65, House of Fraser, Buchanan Street, Glasgow

 

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!

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.

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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