The edges of my world

It’s quite fashionable to talk about the edge. If you’re in an academic world, you probably refer to it as ‘the liminal’. I seem to remember the word from my long ago degree – or was that ‘littoral’? I’d be rather self-conscious writing about ‘the littoral and the liminal’ as American Bonnie McCay has done, though both ideas are enthralling and well worth exploring. Sometimes I think I might drop my sensitivity around apparently pretentious language and just use it. The threshold-ness of the idea also brings the word ‘portal’ to mind, another one I much overused in the recent past, and now feel is due for a revival, just because it can be so apt.

Edges are rich in life and meaning. Elements meet and mix – warm and cold water, darkness and light, rock and air, sea and land. Around the margins of medieval manuscripts mythical beasts roam; between the known and the unknown, mysteries drift and half-form. On the edge of sleep, we dream. Twilight forms and hides the limit of conventional belief. In the penumbra are an infinitude of degrees of greyness. Where do the boundaries of the seven named colours of the rainbow lie? Why seven?

You might think that a person who claims to have a low threshold of risk would shun marginal experience, but this one is rather drawn to it. My awareness of the beauty of the edge has fostered a fascination with beaches, ponds and rivers, horizons, clouds, hedges (two edges there!). Maybe the most significant edge of all, where rock and air meet in the erosive band of the soil has been of prime importance to me as I delve in my garden, and pull vegetables seemingly out of nowhere. My garden is a small world of soil compared with the stripped rainforest where it has taken millenia for a film of life to accumulate, only to be washed away to the sea in a few short years of exploitative logging and soybean cultivation or beef grazing. My garden is of small importance compared with the rice terraces of Ifugao or the parched farms of the Eastern Nile watershed in Sudan and Ethiopia, but it makes the message. It takes so little for this fragile and essential resource to be poisoned or swept away. In short, earth, air and water meet differently in every place and time, and in every different kind of weather.

the soil and its denizens

Maybe my comfortable feeling at the edge comes from my suburban childhood, between city and countryside. A child believes that nothing will ever change in their miniature landscape. But not only does the point of perspective rise as the child grows, and understanding of the processes of change develop with both education and observation, but the focus on detail weakens and now admits how small and grubby a scene could be which had once encompassed such adventures. Certainly the suburbs have seen changes in time, an ebb and flow of people and substance as rapid as in the countryside proper. They are at risk as places to raise children, encounter nature, notice the spaces in between, become oneself. The walls which medieval city dwellers built to keep out the wild and the incursions of the Other are now needed to prevent the reverse encroachment of the urban on the rural. Dismay at the failure by nibbling attrition of green belt planning policy is my generation’s equivalent to the sad regret of John Clare or Richard Jefferies for Enclosure and the intensification of agriculture. There is a thinning of life, and not just a narrowing of the edge between us and the Wasteland.

foreshore low tide
city edge

The mind has edges too, imposing limits on the narrow-minded, encouraging curiosity in the broad-minded, and demanding acceptance, tolerance, patience and compassion towards both children and those whose minds are otherwise to our own, through culture and belief or even mental aberrations. How many times have I almost not seen something important at the edge of vision? Catching such a glimpse, cannot humankind turn aside from its headlong rush over the edge to the Fall?

They say that change is inevitable, and one cannot avoid edges either. There is a frontier to life and experience as one ages. Most of us have an edge to our acceptance. Even the largest desert or ocean has a place where sand accumulates or dwindles as erosion or deposition takes place. it may be an infinitely sharp line or an imperceptible merging, but the Edge will always be somewhere, and on the other side, things will be different.

grass sky horizon

The wind will listen

So now begins the deception of the word. When I read the books I love, I recognise the supreme difficulty of accurately conveying the meaning of subtle thought. The best authors seem to effortlessly convey ideas onto paper. Sometimes I achieve this, or something close to it, at other times I read back what I have written and feel I have failed utterly, and worse, I have said things I didn’t mean. In the ‘listening profession’ (psychotherapy) the practitioner’s empathy can fail too: their own bias can impose meaning which is not there. Question, question, question …

Handwriting seems to encourage fluent thought, maybe the keyboard does not. A blog must be typed at some stage, until we reach voice recognition, and I truly wonder how those who dictate manage coherence. For me, coherence is wrapped up in the process of planning, shuffling and editing towards meaning, and now only the first is hand-work.

For a long time it has seemed clear to me that every person is an unpredictable mix of their facts and their interpretations. One is a body and its emergent mind within contingent circumstances. Now I am older I can see continuities: there were forbears who were gardeners and domestic servants, anxieties can be expressed in familial ways, the spoken voice can be mistaken on the telephone. A third generation reveals this still more clearly.When I learned about the phenomenon of confirmation bias, I realised a further path to destiny: we choose our meanings from among a variety. Yet another understanding from my studies in psychology is the value of reflection as a path to knowing ourselves. This time of my life is the time when  shall know myself and change myself with the greatest self-awareness.

Suburbia is a fine place to grow up. It is full of people, within which little communities form, it shows the process of environmental change acutely, yet there is space for a child to find their own niches –  the garden, the edgelands, the youth club, the shops. Only the first two really interested me. And then there was the refuge of books to which I still retreat today. There can be a kind of anonymity in the city which is not permitted in the suburbs, still less in the countryside, where everyone knows one’s business. So maybe I should be thankful for my origins among the middling folk. Some, but never too much scrutiny. It was often the case, noted also by friends, that the post-war generation of parents did not commit themselves emotionally to their children to a very great degree. Maybe they were tender in their losses. Both before and after, maybe parenthood has seemed to demand a greater degree of supervision, one way and another.

Emotions were unwelcome in my family. Childish temper, excessive sorrow were denied, and so concealed. The occasions upon which I saw my parents distressed were few and far between. I imitated them and I think I have been seen as a controlled person and one who is made a little uncomfortable by the sight of distress in others, yet I can only suppose that, inside, they felt as I do.  Why is it that age seems to bring emotion more to the surface? is it that experience brings empathy, and we see so much pain in the world?

I have recently been reading Lyndall Gordon’s biography of T.S. Eliot, a life of pain if there ever was one. On the whole sympathetic to him, she brings out the point that how we wish to be known can maybe only be expressed in the inchoate form of poetry, if we incline to it. By many accounts a deeply unsympathetic man, and also unfortunate, both in early personal choices and in his war-scarred era. Some of his demons were entirely of his own making while also emergent from his family history and inheritance. At times he expressed hatred of both women and Jews, he seems to us pompous, elitist and astonishingly selfish though maybe in his tormented way he knew this. To the outward view, he certainly made some very self-serving decisions. Towards the end of his life he accepted that he would not be a saint, contented himself with being someone who tried to help people improve themselves and their society through belief. Maybe he did become kind when he allowed himself to accept kindness. I found myself glad he died happy, though I would have preferred him not to have sacrificed loyal friends. but maybe he had only so much energy left to spend. If I had a biographer who had access to the ‘truth’ I’d hope that her readers would accept me in the way I have more easily accepted T.S. Eliot as just another flawed and exceptional human being. I like the idea that if there were survival after death, we would understand and forgive all, the outer and the inner life of ourselves and others. But I don’t believe this, so the acceptance of oblivion is the best I hope for.

These are some moments which completely changed my understanding of the meaning of my life, and allowed me to see that every person has such a history and is therefore infinitely deserving of love and tolerance. As a child I remember only once wanting anything (it was a simple thing and easily given), which I was not allowed. Maybe this was the first experience of injustice, and a profound acceptance that one may never get what one wants (so don’t ask, and don’t show anyone that you mind). I learned young that I was easily discouraged, by things which did not catch my imagination or by criticism. I didn’t realise soon enough that I could say ‘no’. The longer I played the good girl; quiet, obliging, kind; the harder it became to break out of this role. Even now it is hard. My experience of the death of a friend showed me how emotion affects the mind profoundly (to the extent of depriving me of the desire to eat, and on the more positive side, to enable me to ‘get’ T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’). From that time I wrote more for pleasure than work. Living abroad enabled me to see how parochial a person can be, and opened my eyes both to diversity and discrimination of varying degrees of subtlety. I realised that significance of the visual in my world through photography. Through studying psychology and mental health I observed the capacity of the human mind for pathology, and its plasticity – another reason to say ‘there but for the grace …’

After making the decision not to become a psychiatric nurse, and accepting that beyond a certain age maybe some kinds of change become impossibly hard, I saw a few therapists in the name of ‘recovery’ (not counting the practice sessions were were obliged to carry out among ourselves under the guise of peer-counselling). I talked about a lot of other things as well, and I hope this led me to become a better and happier person. I don’t know, maybe I was not so good. I came to see the process of therapy as very mixed. Everything depends on the motive, the problem under discussion, most importantly the therapist and their own biases (no denying it) This led to my further understanding of the limits of empathy, and the possibility of losing oneself in the effort to ‘help’ others.  Such a project of the Self is never finished.

Passing time inevitably brings increasing age and I recognise my great good fortune in my temperament and situation. I see myself as lucky. That is not to say everything has been positive, but more that the negative can be accepted and learned from. But it is hard to lose friends through death, extraordinary events and atrophy. It is hard not to be strong in my body any more. And it is hard to be with people who think a person does not change. Yet maybe they are also right in a way. Maybe there is a core personality which does not change, while the superficial character is more labile. Why do we love people? Does that come from a core of being or superficial preferences. I imagine both these ways are possible.

Another book (‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain) enabled me to accept that I am a partial ‘introvert’: while I can enjoy people I also love my own company; its freedom from expectation and its silence. And that my skills are under-appreciated by society at large, which adores action, risk and the short attention span. And a great deal of observation and study enabled me to understand that I am not a person who manifests stress in unavoidable migraines, but that I am sensitive to certain foods, and need to drink a lot of water, as well as live at a slower pace. All this is acceptable, even welcome, as my energy declines. I’m even glad of my quiet nature, since age may be so much harder for the person who prefers doing to being.

A dappled thing

Red hair and freckles seem a curse to a sensitive child, but I lived. This is the factual history of me. The obvious, external and objective facts only partly form the nature of a person. I can remember and recount my history quite simply, but that is not all there is to it. The internal and subjective, the light and shade, come in my next entry.

Child of the 1950s, child of older parents, clever, plain, I went to a local Montessori nursery which must have had an unusually liberal approach to the education of infants at the time (though it didn’t look much like Montessori method I encountered later). The little boys and girls were prepared for entry to private schools if they were judged to have the necessary brains. I have so many memories of this little school, from the head teacher’s  grand-daughter with a hole in her heart and blue lips to the sad puppets we could take home for the evening if we had been good. Writing was learned by joining dots; my geometric patterns did not meet the approval of the second grade teacher. One day I had to stay for lunch and it was mince and butter beans which I could not eat. 3rd and 4th grade girls shared a room, where there were horse chestnut sticky buds on the teacher’s desk. My interest in the natural world was evident from the beginning, and I left the school for my private junior and secondary school with a little prize, ‘The Dumpy Book of World Nature’ which I still cherish.

darling book

My parents were religious, a stance which unsurprisingly I accepted initially, but then rejected when I came fully to an age of reason. Maybe not all children with such a history would be as bothered by it as I was, but my struggles later became rather complicated, and crossed the boundary into an extreme complexity of meaning. This will have to be unpacked at a later stage of my journey. I believe my parents were kind and good, but their generation had ways of being, and were lacking in ways which have been explored all too fully by the next generation. I loved them, even admired them, considering the travails of their lives; I don’t blame them, but there’s been some working out to do, enough for a lifetime. So this too must wait for its exploration.

To an external view, my childhood was privileged and reasonably happy. My mother was a good cook, and I learned a lot in an informal way, which was a good foundation for future culinary exploits. Although I wasn’t happy at my girls’ school, and starting to struggle and fail in every subject except biology, I got the results I needed to go to university. I managed to defer entry for a year, another  astonishing act of rebellion,  and had a delightful time as a student gardener at the Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley. Here I met people I could never have imagined, including boys.

Durham University when I arrived there in 1975 was another liberation. I loved Botany, a degree subject which no longer exists. It is a lasting regret that I had unreasonable aspirations to be something other than a career botanist, but I say that with hindsight. The life of plants has come to be the greatest interest in my life.

my precious

After two less happy years moving into the domain of design at Sheffield, I had my Masters degree and a job I would come to hate, in a busy landscape architecture practice in London. I also married during this time, and maybe it was a face-saving exit from the profession when my daughter was born, consolidated with my two sons in rapid succession.

Family life followed a conventional path. I actually liked my children and I hope they could say that they were happy despite the occasional blip which I recall with mortification and shame, and I hope more accurately then they do. We had messy days in the kitchen, muddy days leaning over pigsty walls, bonfires and picnics, and the cheapest camping holidays available, on the basis that any experience can transform a child’s understandings, and a parent is not going to know which will be formative, or lead to future happiness. They weren’t completely free, but I hope freer in their minds than either their father or I had been.

Later in the children’s schooldays we took a chance to live abroad for a short while. Switzerland was a lovely time of excitement and new experience for the most part. Like so many of my experiences, maybe every experience any person can have, living in Switzerland was composed of almost violent juxtapositions of light and darkness. The summer sun is brilliant and hot, perhaps too much so for an English shade plant such as I. But the society has another side, and winter can be bleak. I had time on my hands, and it was a time for reflection and integration. It was also a time when I began to take photographs, and to explore the incipient and ambiguous world of social media.

lavaux lake light
light  on Lac Leman

I returned to live in England again after three years in Switzerland. For pragmatic reasons, the family was now apart, living in different countries and pursuing different objectives. I was aiming to begin another career (studying to return to work in the field of mental health), while also caring for my aging mother and also keeping an eye on the eldest and youngest child, while my husband oversaw the final stage of the middle child’s secondary education. In the end, I decided that I was not cut out to be a mental health nurse. The theory was fascinating, the clients (as they were then termed, rather than patients, though they did mostly have the patience of saints) seemed to warm to me, but the paperwork, the chaos of the NHS at the time (sadly it has continued so to this day) and the prospect of ‘watching my back’ seemed, in the final analysis, too frightening and worrying to contemplate. I hold a position almost midway between regret and relief at this decision.

Most recently, I took a succession of menial jobs to while  away the daytimes and give me some social contact and minimal income, while I continued to care for my mother and indulge my love of my family, friends and home, my garden, my ‘making’  and my books.

making …

My mother died and my daughter became pregnant within three months. I already knew that in my adult life  I had more played a succession of roles than become myself, and now I take this task in hand, with a greater sense of clarity than I expected.