Monday, 23 June 2014

A focused detour

Anyone who has read this blog more than once over the last twelve months or so has probably noticed a few things.  A little bit of general unhappiness/dissatisfaction, a sense of being on the brink of change but not quite sure what it looks like or what will come of it, and actually simply not knowing how to kickstart those changes.

I should say now that this post may appear a bit … erm … "woo woo" at points but I hope it will make sense; similarly these are what the YouTube generation would call "First World Problems."  Yes, yes they are - but that doesn't make them not problems, or this any less of a thing that needs to be worked around.  That is simply the reality of the world we live in and it seems a bit silly to have to apologise for those things; it doesn't mean one doesn't concern oneself with other much more important things too.  This is simply an opportunity to set out an outline of some tangible changes that I'm having a go at making, just to see what happens.  The rest, I genuinely believe, can't be held too tightly - life has a natural way of striking the right balance when we need it to (this might be one of those woo woo moments right there then).

So, my time in Glasgow has been fantastic for offering me a road back to the things that make me tick - reading, interesting chat, lively people with similar interests, a focus on things that really interest me - and away from things that are not very me, I've rather fallen into them, but they are destructive, enervating and, frankly, boring.  Being back in Hertfordshire full-time has brought this journey further into focus.  Fourteen years ago I went part-time at work to do a degree at Birkbeck.  I hadn't been able to go on to university when I was 18 and by 21 I was desperate to study again after finding myself in one mundane job after another - it was tricky for women in particular to get entry level jobs as anything other than receptionists and secretaries without a degree; entering the workplace now is of course still very difficult but for generally different reasons (institutionalised misogyny aside).  Unfortunately, that also means that young women are uniquely vulnerable to workplace abuses etc (in my opinion and based on a straw poll of conversations I've had with people over the years) but again that's probably another post.  Birkbeck was a wonderful experience and I have overwhelmingly positive memories of my time there despite two bereavements and a major break-up all happening during my degree.  Wandering through Bloomsbury still provides a little frisson and makes me feel like I'm going home.

The point of that was that at the same time as starting my degree, I took up yoga.  It was taught in a funny little church hall by a woman in her sixties, and I was the youngest person in the class by roughly three decades; it was fun, challenging and exhilarating.  Before I knew it, I was doing four or five classes a week with different teachers and was officially hooked.  This is a theme that will recur.

Since moving properly to St Albans, I've started getting back into The Fitness!  Initially, it was just hopping no the treadmill three times a week for an hour but since April it's taken on a life of its own and I run twice a week, go to boot camp once, and without realising it my yoga classes have gone from one or two a week to five a week.  At the same time, I embarked on Clean Eating about six weeks ago and it's quite easy to get evangelical about the benefits of this.  Using the James Duigan Clean and Lean book and a lot of support from someone who knows about these things, the last six weeks have seen a big shift in my eating habits but most importantly my desires for certain foods.  Sugar addiction definitely applied to me - my sweet tooth was both legendary and debilitating, a source of other people's jokes and of deep shame to me.  Very boo-hoo I know, but if you're slim and have a love of sugar you are immediately a villain if you moan, but I was certain it was doing dreadful things to me while being a sucker for peer-pressure and therefore finding it impossible to give up.  I've also always believed low-fat, low-sugar foods to be the devil so was caught in this odd cycle of sugaring it up, finding no real benefit to my training, and not really knowing how to sort things out.  So I've been "sugar clean" for six weeks now and am suddenly sleeping again, waking up naturally in the mornings, and haven't had any of the dizzy and/or fainting spells that used to punctuate my days.  There are a thousand other tiny benefits that I can't really articulate but just feel are happening in terms of mood, outlook, engagement with the world around me and a general sense of empowerment.

Now that brings me to another effect that I can articulate.  Clean eating was one thing, and questioning both why I wanted something as much as why I shouldn't need that thing was helpful.  Then I read this post.  It felt like I'd been hit in the chest with a cricket bat, as if a massive pair of blinkers had been taken off.  So as well as admitting to being a sugar addict, I am admitting to being a clutter addict.  I'm a clutter addict under very particular circumstances and for very particular reasons.  Somehow, this article made me realise that clutter stands in for a whole mess (literally) of patterns and emotions that I simply hadn't known how to deal with in the world around me, so I had displaced these onto things.  That near-constant feeling of being smothered and trapped was quite literally because the volume of stuff around me was stifling me.  What an incredibly depressing moment.  And I let myself sit with that feeling for twelve hours before ...

... deciding to take my clean eating experiment to the next stage and start thinking about what cleaning up my life more generally might involve.  Here's where it might get a bit woo-woo.  I decided to start working from the top of the house down, and headed up to the loft.  Creating four piles - discard, charity shop, keep and sell (got to start taking ownership of those emotion-induced debts) - I started ploughing through the forty or so boxes of accumulated bleurch that was up there.  Making the piles, I was conscious that there was loads of stuff I could sell, but I wanted to be mindful of who the likely buyer might be.  I have hundreds of books.  Those books that I thought would likely be of use to students who might not have huge budgets, I decided not to sell but to give to charity bookshops (there's a great Oxfam book shop round the corner from me).   The same thought process was applied to clothes that could be useful to someone - such as suits, unworn bras, tights still in the packaging.  There were many moments of shame as I looked at the accumulating piles of things that still had labels on.  It was a useful if painful opportunity to access the feelings I had when buying those things (the benefit of an eidetic memory) and engage with the situations/interactions/emotions that had driven me to buy things I clearly didn't need.  There was also physical pain - working under a pitched roof meant I managed to hit my head quite seriously and spent one day feeling constantly nauseous after one accidental knock rattled my teeth and literally knocked me onto my arse.  Luckily I was own my own because it almost certainly looked ridiculous and was rather embarrassing; it's not as if I don't know that the loft has a pitched roof after all so it shouldn't be rocket science to avoid it.  Anyway ...

Programmes like The Life of Grime demonstrate that people get an enormous amount of reassurance from having stuff around them.  It provides physical grounding, a backdrop of certainty when things are anything but.   Buying things is often also part of a domestic ritual.  When I was younger, going to the shops followed by a slice of cake and a hot chocolate would be a Saturday routine "if you've been good."  I started to really unpick the way this type of language had been used towards me (and observing it around me on the streets now in interactions between people of all ages); it feels like a language of control, negotiation, negation, imposition.  An external signifier of ones behaviour, and an external reward for meeting some poorly defined set of criteria for successfully making someone else feel good.  At what cost?  What really brought it home was when I found a bag that I've been coveting for ages (but managed to resist buying I'm slightly heartened to note).  I found it in my box of bags.  This bag that I've been eyeballing for ages was something I already had but the fact it had been forgotten about tells me that it wasn't the bag that must have been important - something about the ritual of obtaining it and owning it must have been the abiding motivation.  Again, this was one of a series of startling and quite painful revelations.

While working through the boxes, there were some things I knew I wasn't ready to let go of.  Lots of uncluttered types suggest scanning in old photographs and keeping them online.  Well, I'm never going to do that.  I like old photographs, I'm a Luddite, and frankly it is a real ball ache to do jobs like that.  It also says to discard old letters etc, but the little scribbled notes in my mother's handwriting?  It's been ten years since she died but I can't bear to think I can't see her handwriting again.   Same with her cosmetics bag which I found complete with her foundation and blusher inside.  Opening it up, it smelt as if she was in the room with me and I couldn't throw the things away.  Not just yet.  My first boyfriend's tie was there too, still knotted as if he was about to put it on.  It came out of the first box I tackled and went back in again.  For two days I felt the weight of that old tie bearing down on me through the ceiling and I fished it back out again (no mean feat) and it is at the charity shop.  He was a wonderful man and a fantastic boyfriend, but that was a long time ago.

This post isn't going to end with lots of answers and conclusions.  It is just a chance to chronicle my very personal thoughts on embarking on this process.  It feels another step in a transformative twelve months which is now in its tenth month.   It is of course another form of displacement - I'm suffering with terrible writer's block and am not sure how to move past the analysis paralysis.  Imposing structure on my day should help - one hour of clutter clearance before breakfast -  and acknowledging a need to pace the desire for change is probably also a good thing to temper a headlong and unthinking rush and make the best choices.

Keeping me company at the moment is a-ha, Jason Isbell and Joan Armatrading amongst others.  Always nice to have someone to regain consciousness to after a run-in with a pitched roof. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Words in bloom

As I coast (not an accurate description but unbridled panic isn't a great introduction to a post) into the last ten weeks of my masters, having written only 10% of my dissertation is not an edifying feeling.  There's so much research to get through, but … the ideas are coming together and perhaps part of the learning process is about respecting my own process (while not hacking off my supervisor too much by not being able to stick entirely to hers).  Displacing anxiety onto the mark (out of my hands once the work is written) instead of onto the actual writing has been distracting so I'm pulling focus back to the point that this year has been revelatory in lots of ways; I have got so much more than an education from it which is more than one can hope for really.  So I'm going to get those words on paper for goodness sake.  I managed to get these words written after all so it is possible…

Vase of Flowers, Mary Moser, The Fitzwilliam Museum

This Mary Moser painting, aside from being rather beautiful, is relevant for a couple of reasons - she featured in Amanda Vickery's fantastic BBC 2 programme about women and their often overlooked but significant contribution to art through the ages.  The programme gave me a(nother) flash of inspiration for my project - which has been rather slowed down by the glut of ideas that keep springing to mind - which is looking at the textual function of embroidery in the eighteenth century; in particular thinking about images of flowers and how they might have allowed women to interact and communicate as a form of, in effect, writing in stitch.  I suspect it's a bit of a niche interest.
Anyone who has embroidered knows that it isn't a particularly gentle art.  In fact, if my two weeks at the RSN taught me anything it's that it's technically, creatively and physically demanding - my fingers were bleeding and swollen, my back was aching, my eyes were sore but it was all worth it because it felt as if I had learnt so much and was communicating something of that learning through the work (it taught me a HUGE amount besides a tolerance for physical discomfort by the way).  In fact, I thought there was a post about my crewelwork somewhere but I can't find it.  I must fish it out and photograph it at some point.  In the meantime, my Blackwork module took a tumble in the fallout from personal stuff so that's been deferred until the next academic year which was upsetting but things that are worth it are worth waiting for.  I've already prepared a draft design for it so there's an element of bloody minded determination to get it done.  At some point, a certificate of some level of technical competence will be gripped in my paw.

Speaking of photographs, here are some photographs of a new Audrey in action including a boob shot for which I apologise but it's both accidental and knitwear (so unavoidable for seeing the yoke) which means it's hardly gratuitous - it's all for the art you know.  Making this again would involve more shaping at the waist and I might go down a size and up a needle rather than going up two sizes and sticking with the recommended needle.  The buttonhole band was replaced by a ribbon trim and poppers to which I added some rather nice old buttons that I found in some little dodgy shop somewhere.  More information on my Ravelry page.

Awkward subject, nice cardigan, loving the clogs 

It's all about the yoke

Poppers and buttons.  Not easier than knitting a button band as it turns out.

The yoke in live action ...

Having made it through a doctor ordered two week exercise ban without climbing the walls (which presumably wouldn't have been allowed anyway), I got back to running this week, what with being in fine fettle all along, and found myself trotting around Verulam Park.
Something that I have in common with many other people is a mildly obsessional fondness for animals - in fact I prefer dogs to most people, cats on occasion but they've got to be pretty special as no one wants to be the needy one in a relationship, especially one with a pet.  The happiest days of my life involve trips to Monkey World, seeing an orang-utan in the wild, drifting past a crocodile while perched in a tiny leaky boat, or being held hostage on a hiking trail by a moose in Alaska …  I've always said hello to people (odd enough in a Londoner if one observes stereotypes), but if they have a dog then the dog gets a smile first.  In general animals have a better sense of how to treat each other than most people.  Explains a lot about my social skills no doubt.

Anyway, the point is that on my gambols through the park there is always something to see.  When I head out early, there are sleeping ducks on the paths or geese lining up like rows of  sentinels to brace themselves for that first dip, coots leading their chicks downstream, rabbits lolloping around doing whatever it is that rabbits do with their free time.  Later, dogs barrel along trying to interact with some fairly disinterested but not overly intimidated ducks - must take a camera so I can take pictures because it's lovely.  It reminds me of the favourite part of each of my days in Glasgow.  To get to the university one must pass a dog park and without fail there was a hound capable of raising a smile.  Despite most  recollections of a Glasgow winter including a crescent of duffle coat hood, I still remember every day as sunny which of course can't be true because I was damp for a large part of November to February.  Am sure those crazy collies and loopy labs have something to do with it.  Now the duffle coat has been shed, it's Rocky style fitness out there, and doing circuits in the park attracts a lot of canine spectators who assume that people doing the plank in a public space must be subject to sniffs and other often rather personal interrogation.

Note to self: if you go purple during exercise, don't wear purple - the St Albans Sweaty Betty gang (and me hanging on for survival) ...

So the last few weeks have been an interesting time, involving more contact with The Professions than I would normally like (including that exercise ban).  Technically I suppose, though, they are experts and it's nice to be reassured that things are never so bad, actually really rather OK, and that there is an other side to come out of, no doubt rather sooner than one thinks.  Being one of those unbearably PollyAnna types anyway, I'm usually quite good at finding the silver lining so striking out and doing my own thing has been good.  From the theatre - La Traviata (gets me every time), Antony & Cleopatra (jaw droppingly good), Titus Andronicus in a few weeks (gory but my favourite Shakey), to galleries (Matisse next week and can't wait), to reading (too many to list) and writing again, it's all been very edifying for those gloomier moments and, in my view, all roads lead to blooming good things eventually, and after a fashion.