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

So, how’s it going?

I’ve written a few entries now. Definitely ups and downs. Here’s what I’m thinking in the very early days of this venture. It’s difficult. Being in the right mood, finding the right words, making the time. I’m enjoying myself, but feeling that I’m going to need to improve my game. Having a wordpress blog, I’m receiving messages all the time that other bloggers have found what I’ve written ‘totally awesome’ or similar. I’m wise to this now. In the early days of flickr (my first venture into the world of social media) we were all very starry-eyed. I joined the photo-sharing site in 2004, when it had only 10,000 members. If someone liked my most recently uploaded  image, I felt I had made a real connection. We were friends and shared our deepest feelings. It was real and lovely, wasn’t it? I still know some of those people; they walked into my real world.

early days: channelling the internet in 2004

Then a funny thing happened, which I might have been prepared for, knowing all about the Dunbar number, and what happens to country folk when they become city folk (their overall tendency to trust and help strangers declines). People began to play games. Online, I began to notice that some individuals’ ‘number of friends’ began to bloat. People ‘knew’ thousands of others, made contacts randomly rather than because of shared interests, and commented merely ‘wow’ rather than engaging on a more worthwhile (to me) level. Groups were inundated with unrelated images. Trolls trolled. Porn sprouted. The site became a shambles, a wreckage of something which had been rather sweet. Ipernity now looks like flickr then, but without the genuine community. At least, I haven’t found it, and I’m not trying. Finding community online has become all but impossible, unless one has endless time, and an axe to grind. I’m not so much of a ‘game-player’ and I lost the will to join in. I didn’t even want to be that kind of person; did I sense a certain inauthenticity? I’m not expecting to see any community emerge here for me unaided, though it would be nice if that happened. One could spend days hopping from blog to blog, gleaning material, making contact. But the returns seem paltry and diminishing. Effort in does not equal value out. Somewhere in the airways energy is dissipated, and I don’t have energy to spare. Writing here has to be for me alone – no distracting friends, no chasing views, just a convenient platform. Friends are in the real world again. That’s ok (but you can read me here if you like).

My own writing has changed. I said earlier that I was a good writer, but now I’m not so sure. There is a lot of good writing about. People are telling interesting stories. Lots of those people are young. They are quick and trendy. They read one another. Some are generating material which others actually read, to the point of e-publishing and even paper books. Already I have a feeling that I’m not operating on that level. Who could possibly want to read what I write? Talk about early discouragement! But, yes, I know, that’s not what this is supposed to be about. I am not ‘in the market’. I am just dipping a toe.

Certainly I have not been practicing enough. I write maybe three times a week at best. Typing is not quite like handwriting, it’s boring and tiring in a different way. Organising  and proofreading is bothersome. My concentration is shot, whether from age or gaily surfing the internet for 10 years without concern for my brain structures. My research and synthesis skills are rusty; thank heavens I never had to submit an academic essay with ‘Turnitin’ (anti-plagiarism software used by British universities). I’ve lost focus in writing, just as my eyesight has become a touch misty. In my mind I am as sharp as ever. I hear neat phrases forming as I take my constitutional – ‘what a brilliant piece that could be!’ – only to find that it’s pretty clunky when I come to write it down. This is nothing like I imagined it would be!

I have a wooden box, it used to be a seed box, which happens to fit exactly some index cards bought for another purpose.  This box has a supply of ideas for expansion which is growing more rapidly than my capacity to write them out. I find I always like the notes better than I like the finished piece. Polishing is a process I like less and less (though I don’t mind it so much in the case of poetry). I have a huge supply of pictures, some of which are fit to illustrate my pieces. Maybe this is saying that ideas have been revolving in my mind for over ten years. Now the words and images are blending. Just as well to shovel them out, perfectly formed or not.

seeds …

How will I ever  manage my material in the way of my favourite authors? Between 1951 and 1975, Anthony Powell wrote twelve books documenting the life of his unsung hero, Nick Jenkins. Throughout the series the thread of the story spools out, loose ends are connected up, characters develop yet remain consistent, national and personal history unrolls. Each time I read a volume, I find some new but coherent detail which I had missed before, but which perfectly fits and elucidates. He uses long but perfectly formed sentences, full of allusion and erudition. The scenes convince, the characters fill one with compassion or horror, or both. How could he possibly have planned such a perfect pattern, truly a dance to the music of time, echoing his favourite Poussin painting? How controlled the flow over 25 years? I love it because it calls up so perfectly the world my father inhabited – a Welsh childhood, the Territorial army, a long office career, encounters with famous figures who revealed their feet of clay. I love those details of people’s lives, and in enjoyment of fiction maybe I can escape the accusation of an over curious mind. I feel I shall revisit those pages until I die. I know those people like no others, even though they don’t exist.

There’s a particular problem I’m having, with repetition. Close reading here will doubtless show that I am often forgetting what I have said, and saying it again. It’s like a conversation I’m having during which I become embarrassingly aware that I’ve said it all before, and to the very same patient audience. Perhaps each cycle of repetition subtly changes the phraseology, the emphasis and even my own understanding of the meaning. Maybe it’s due to a focus on the self, rather than the other in conversation. Only this is not a conversation, it is, thus far, entirely one-sided.  If only I could remember that even I prefer to hear about the other rather than talk about myself. And yet … I still have the hope that if I write it, the urge to repeat will gradually abate and I will regain my innocent mind.

I’m also wondering whether my themes have become over-complicated with the accretion of material over the years. There is knowing things, and arranging them in a comprehensible way. I’m finding it hard to state things categorically, since I have come to see events and people in so much more nuanced terms. This complexity is hard to write out. Somehow I can grasp an entirety in my mind, with a kind of Keatsian negative capability, but any attempt to convey in concrete terms seems to fail. It strikes me that I am attempting more of an ‘artistic’ or impressionistic approach than my former inclination to pin something down with scientific or philosophical certainty.  I even find that I don’t have opinions any more. Or if I have them I certainly don’t defend them. Maybe this is why poetry can seem to appeal more as one gets older. Things don’t have to be certain any more. Science is still valid in some areas, but not others. And any attempt I might make to justify psychology as a science would certainly now be vain.

negative capability
Things get complicated …

There has been some discussion of how a dead person’s internet effects might be disposed. Their blog, photo-collection, even documents in the cloud. The question is akin to those previously well explored by curators and historians; which artists’ work enters the ‘canon’? Is all their work ‘worthy’? Is history being written by the victors? And then there’s the vexed question of ‘legacy’; why do humans often seem to feel that without a trace on the collective memory, a life has been futile .  Why do people want to be remembered by a wider society than their immediate family and friends? What partial truth about me could possibly emerge from this blog? I’ve become even more acutely aware of the volume of material here in Cyberspace, that Universe possibly even larger that the physical universe, and I wonder what is my own digital trace? I think, if I can, I shall ensure that this evaporates into the ether as I do. Sit mihi terra laevis.

feather light

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.

Why write a blog?

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I know I’m a procrastinator. But I have also been heard to say ‘writing is all there is left to do’. And then again, ‘It’s all been said before’. I love to write, and I love knowledge and ideas, especially when they can be combined in complicated yet coherent ways. Synthesis. Equally, I know that truth depends on perspective. So placing letters on a page, however virtual, becomes a rash act. Who will disagree? I’m 60 this year. There’s no need now for me to fear any person’s judgment (even of my spelling),  and better still, I know that nobody is looking. To hear me on the internet a person would have to be a very acute listener; there’s so much noise. And advertising is anathema – I’m not going to jump up and down crying ‘look at me! look at me!’. At times in my life I have tried to explain myself, but finally I know that I don’t need to, and that there is nothing worse than to try one’s best, and still be misunderstood. So what will follow is just how it seems to me.

There is an ulterior motive, but an exploration of that will have to wait a while, until I have gained confidence, made a habit of writing, and seen a body of work emerge. There is sometimes a necessity in concealment, privacy, even secrecy.

The act of writing is a pleasure to me and I am a true hedonist. I’m shy, so I am happy to be be my own and only audience, and as to speak aloud brings new meanings to poetry, I’m hoping some new meanings will emerge for me when I write. Ideas become tired from batting around in my head for so long. A friend said to me once that we seem to come to the truth repeatedly, and then forget it repeatedly. Maybe writing it will help me remember a truth.

Change is inevitable. Time moves, meaning shifts, my own reluctant bias swings around. I hope I remain open to the wealth of material in the world. We have access to ever more information, and need to find ways to sift it. Diarists often say that they recognise their former selves in past entries, and in my past of words, sometimes I have been  pleased by my own coherence. Let’s hope I can generate more of that before my cognitive powers decline. I’ve never yet been a creature of habit, but now I hope to form just a few; a pattern to make sense of the future.

My punctuation and grammar may be erratic, or better, idiosyncratic. We all have our areas of pedantry. But I intend to go with the flow and not try to be too controlling. I love the ellipsis, the question mark and the dash. My voice somehow needs that uncertainty.

Inspiration is there, all around. As words can have many meanings, so photographs can capture the visible world only imperfectly. Maybe I can find a way to use words and images together to mean more. The world of ideas is fleeting, and I have sometimes been tempted to think that just to have one a day might be enough. But isn’t a search for more personal meaning at a time when my worldly roles are loosening a most valid venture?