Not a diary …

This is definitively not a diary. I’m not going to be telling you what I’m doing all the time. That doesn’t mean to say that the things I do don’t have the greatest possible influence on what I write here. And what I have been doing lately feels as though it is rather important to my future. To my understanding that it’s not over until it’s over. We all know that getting out and about, learning new things, meeting people is important to even an introverted person. The trouble is, when things have been dull for a number of years, somehow it is hard to generate the necessary enthusiasm to make such opportunities.

Now, it seems to me, is an important time for me to look within and around, and see what I can salvage of my heartfelt values and make into something new, which may change my little world for the time that remains to me. Maybe I have been collecting and collating experiences, but I have not been making much of them, due to lack of time, commitment, skills. I also feel more evangelical than I have for a long time. The world needs saving! And what am I going to contribute to that effort? I am also more aware of my own capacities so I think I will not set my sights so high. So if not the world, my corner of it. And if word should get out, so much the better.

This process starts here, with a book, as so often. I have been reading Michael McCarthy’s ‘The Moth Snowstorm’ and I have found it inspirational. He starts by studying the variously failed models of  conservation, concluding with a measured despair that the most recent flourishes of sustainability  (Rio) and the market (in the form of, for example, eco-tourism and use value of habitats or species) are as unlikely to succeed as earlier gestures to protect the environment from rapacious greed and exploitation. We don’t have a long-term plan, and seem unable even to consider the well-being of our children. McCarthy speaks of an almost spiritual value which he sees as the slenderest of hopes, but the one remaining to us. He believes (I don’t happen to believe this, but I’ll go along with it) that humans feel a special connection to Nature, by virtue of place within it and our past evolution of exquisite attunement for survival’s sake, which is manifest in our joy and wonder at the huge, the tiny, the rare and the prolific, the colourful and the strange. To this list of the marvellous, I would add, from my own experience, the ordinary, since all life (and indeed, non-life) on the planet and off it is marvellous to me. I am filled with joy and wonder every day.

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butterfly in our meadow

Following rapidly on the heels of my discovery of this book have been serendipitous events: finding a secondhand copy of Ronald Blythe’s ‘Divine Landscapes’; meeting a German woman imbued with the essential values of the emergent Green politics of the 1970s and 80s, sadly now rather in eclipse; encountering a wonderful dress designer and maker in Glastonbury while in search of something special to wear at my son’s coming wedding;  meeting a friend in search of an ancient yew tree; and  talking with another friend about her studies in the art or craft of kintsugi. From this last discussion, which turned on issues of ‘right-livelihood’ and the need for authenticity and coherence, ideas of self and occupation emerged – a firming of the resolution to explore what all this means to the essential ‘me’. The word which comes to mind may sound pretentious, but what do I care now about that? It is ‘integrity’. I will make my future with integrity, or I will make nothing.

I’ve been talking about writing, but I know that it is ‘good for a person’ to make things with her hands as well. I do make things, but not in a particularly sustained or practiced way. No 10,000 hours for me. The production of a material object seems valid if it is of use or beauty, but as for imposing my own creations on others, or making a living from them, well, that has always seemed unlikely, out of reach somehow. Too much of a contribution to the mass of stuff burdening the earth. I always knew that my other physical contribution to the world, gardening, was more of a process, considerably reliant on a sensitive working with nature. A garden for me is a cooperative effort. I know what Nature is capable of, and after minimal slashing, burning and digging, a garden will make itself. I’m not much of one for pergolas and decking, walls and paving, so I have never been inclined to supply my clients with what you might call ‘television’ or ‘Chelsea’ gardens. But my gardens look good and are full of life, and most importantly do no harm. They are peaceful places to be.

I am, at least today, full of hope that something true will emerge from this bud of intention, and that what I have sometimes felt lost may be found, or at least re-created. In this hope I am much consoled that this very piece of writing, which I thought had fallen through the cracks of carelessness and new technology, has been found in the archive. Hurrah.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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feather light

They do furnish a room

Books have been my life’s companion, alongside plants. Maybe my laptop runs them a close race now, although I don’t have an e-reader. But am I a writer? I do write, and I have been said to be a good writer, though you may judge. Even the remote possibility that I may be a writer of Something (academic essays, poetry, blog-posts) does not make me a writer of anything which might be published, nor especially the writer of a novel. I’ve had the idea in mind for years, always procrastinated. There are so many disincentives – the idea, the sustained effort required, a fear of failing to produce anything I would be satisfied with, and now, most of all ‘the market’. So much dross emerges from so many aspirant writers, there’s something in me which now deters me from even trying: a weak position. Has everything been said? Not by me … Yet now I have the time, I have few other claims on my attention. Surely at this point the will to do it has not ebbed away?

It’s a cliché that everyone has a book in them. I think I have a book in me too. My life has contained both the usual and the unusual experience, permitting me to think I could write something both accessible and novel. In my travels I have encountered many people, both ‘types’ and individuals more or less recognisable. My interest in psychologies and social dynamics brings me to ask the questions whose answers might be the stuff of a novel. Yet a dilemma has long plagued me – how to disguise the experience or the person? And in my awareness of the human tendency to stereotype I question my own ability to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, and repetition. Even here, over short entries and a few days I have the feeling that I’ve said it before, and to the same listener – how dull!  We repeat and repeat until we learn a lesson, then the urge to voice the thing evaporates. Maybe I would rather not bring forth this book in me, but continue to cherish the idea of the book. I’m aware as time passes that the will to bring anything into the world, to be a burden to me or others, is weakening. Maybe to have the idea , turn it in the light of the mind and see it sparkle, then let it slip away, is enough. Now, rather than making more things, it’s more a de-cluttering phase of life. I’m shedding the accumulation of six decades. But, humanly, it seems one must have ‘occupation’. Could writing be part of that occupation?

As a reader, what do I read?  Even before reading, I do like a good picture book. Sometimes the words are too much effort! One can look at a beautiful book for hours. There are long journeys in picture books, and the thoughts they provoke can be an enthralling as words written.

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Le Vertige des Reserves: Bibliotheques et Musees de Geneve

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” (X. Trapnel in ‘Temporary Kings’ by Anthony Powell). I read novels, even of the lighter sort, and I would never assert that science fiction, fantasy, or comedy are empty of worthwhile content. But I do also like a challenge or something more experimental as well as the purely narrative (Will Self). I gravitate to certain themes; psychology, the quirks of religion, gender, art, madness of various kinds; and tend to avoid the environmental as too close to the bone, not really the stuff of fiction. But I do wonder whether too much novel-reading engenders over-stereotyping. If each author has a tendency to write their own stereotypes, may those not reinforce my own?

I both read and write poetry. Nobody knows. Or they do, because I tell them. But there is, maybe, a kind of reluctance to publicise something as fraught with misunderstanding.

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poetry …

Biography also feeds into the willingness to think one knows a person by what they write. Whether a bad person can produce good art (of whatever kind) is a vexed question into which I might delve elsewhere. Thomas Hardy, Henry James, T.S.Eliot. Is it my imagination, or do I like female biographers of male subjects? Must be some inaccuracies of interpretation there!

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bio …

Recent non-fiction has considerably improved my understanding of surprising facets of the world . ‘Oxygen: the molecule that made the world’ by Nick Lane brings together some extraordinary insights into how life on earth emerged, and how a substance can have very contradictory aspects. Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species: How the planet can survive in the age of humans’ challenged some of my environmental positions, although as a person with a low threshold for risk, I would not concede all his points.  ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari will be my next reading venture. It has to be admitted that I have a bedside stack several high.

Finally no list would be complete without the ‘how-to’ manuals, which feed my (easily-sated) hunger for the new, or otherwise my search for the One activity which will absorb my creative powers until they ebb away completely – weaving, gilding, calligraphy, bookbinding, tassels and cords … part of the book-burden which I shall maybe soon shed. My short attention-span has threatened the structural integrity of my bookshelves –  I am weighed down with diversity. A startling aside here is that what goes around comes around. A book recently borrowed from a friend, Sheila Hicks on her small weavings, looks remarkably like the craft offering from the Women’s Institute which I so nearly acquired from the Haslemere Transition bookstall at the last Farmers’ Market. A discussion on where art becomes craft must wait a future entry, except just to note here that the physical book is a beautiful and satisfying thing, which will not, in my view, be replaced by technology. A book is a material possession, baggage in all senses.

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Sheila Hicks, Weaver: a beautiful Book

But all this lovely reflection on past enjoyment of books gets me no further with my own contradictory urge towards writing; stifled, thwarted, frustrated though it may be, certainly unproductive to the present time and still hesitating. My hidden intention here is to develop the habit of writing, form a body of work however superficial, inspect my themes and enthusiasms and maybe tentatively approach some stories, and ‘have something’ to show for all my talk. Procrastination is said to be best addressed by answering the question “What can I do Now?”Well, this is what I can do. What I do Next may involve the Story itself, retreating, mentoring, an agent … but is all rather nebulous so far. Let it emerge.

If I could write a book, or series of books, it would be somewhere between ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell, and Harry Potter. I want my book first and foremost to be massively enjoyable for the reader. I would like a wide readership and of course I want to win a prize or make a lot of money. Maybe I only want to satisfy myself that I have written something which seems good to me, even if I have not been read. Maybe I only want to Write something, not even good, not even have it published. The bar both raises itself and lowers itself all the time.

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shelf-burden/consolation/aspiration

There would be psychology, a group of misguided individuals following a misguided guru, and their respective motivations. There would be representation of the interior life, and examination of what behaviour emerges from it. “What did not happen in public had no reality for G.””With G., everything was within himself.” (Anthony Powell)  There would be a morphing of what I know of people into something unrecognisable; changes of situation, motivation, gender. The compound characters would bring the reader recognition but no paranoia. There would be ‘what I know’ – the mysteries of art and plants, the particularity of growing up in the suburbs, of family life in small towns. There would probably be little conversation, maybe I would resort to being the omniscient narrator in some way: after all, we all like to believe ourselves omniscient, do we not? There would be poetic expression – no too demanding experimental discord. There would be excellent grammar (I might need some help with this). There would be a pseudonym. Sometimes this is as far as I get. Who am I? It would be a material book, maybe even with illustrations – no e-publishing, I think. Aah … dreaming again. Most likely there would be, in another decade, some bonfire of my authorial vanities.

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write …

At least, writing occupies less space than both reading and making. And thinking occupies no space at all.

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.