Islands in the stream

Today I cleaned my bedroom.  Work/hospital/lovely weather had postponed previous planned cleans, but it could be delayed no longer.  On went the music, & as I bopped around, dusting & re-arranging & sorting out the piles of ‘stuff’ that had accumulated, I found myself singing very loudly along to ‘Islands in the stream’.  I love the Bee Gees & Dolly Parton, hence this song is a double-winner for me.  As I returned my space to its usual somewhat cluttered but serene state, I felt like an island in the stream myself: totally alone, but content & focused, the captain of my own ship – in charge of my own destiny(ation). 

This evening I visited two sets of friends.  The first couple have just had an absolutely beautiful baby; the second have just moved into their first home together.  I love all of them & was so happy to see them – and so happy to see them all embarking on exciting new stages in their lives.  In both cases, there was that sense of connection that is often present with old friends, when your shared history ties you together in invisible bonds however diverse your lives have become. 

As I drove away from the second visit, though, I was aware of the momentary nature of that connection.  They have formed their own islands in the stream too.  Part of me felt a little sad – & lost – that I don’t have a Kenny Rogers to accompany my Dolly Parton.  But as I sit here in bed, looking around at my freshly scrubbed space (complete with rose petals, as in the photograph below), that wistfulness has passed.  This is my island, and not every song is a duet.  I am content to sing solo. 

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My life in books

I love books.  This blog could actually have had a different subtitle: rather than ‘one woman’s quest to create a life of one’s own’, it could have easily been ‘one woman’s quest to create more storage space for books’.  I am not alone in this passion: although reading is largely a solitary occupation, books are one of life’s great shared experiences.  That’s why it is so magical to hear a primary school teacher reading aloud; it is one of the few times when the bond created by a good book is so clearly & obviously shared.  I still get a thrill thinking of Mrs Fuller reading ‘James & the Giant Peach’ & I still occasionally try – to no avail – to recreate her amazing New York accent for the pair of bystanders who feature towards the end of the book.

I love the way that books can actively influence one’s mood.  When I look back at my life, memories are often punctuated by a particular book & corresponding emotional response: age 16, bawling my eyes out at Wuthering Heights while sat on a beach in France with my family; age 18, during a post-break-up mini-break of freedom, frightening myself reading The Haunting of Hill House on a train between Sheffield & Liverpool; aged 22, crying with laughter reading Frank Skinner’s autobiography having been to Leeds to view my new home for the first time (this was also on a train; maybe I should further investigate the train/book/emotion phenomena…). 

Books also punctuate my life in terms of phases.  Like romantic relationships, a book will come into my life & I will fall in love with it; I will think it is the best book I’ve ever read & no book will ever be better or more suited to me.  I force everyone around me to listen to how great this book is.  I think I am the only person to have ever felt that way ever about a book.  It’s not just love – it’s destiny that we’re meant to be together!  Inevitably, though, the glow fades.  My wandering eye is tempted by another title & before I know it, another love affair begins…

Often my strongest relationships with books begin during a period of particular angst on my part.  These books tend to be united by a theme of gender & voyages of self-discovery – a point that has only just occurred to me.  I guess I’m looking to them for answers to my many questions.  I’m also quite fatalistic about these books: I don’t go looking for them, they all just seem to appear in my life.

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong: I’d never heard of this then read two references to it in one week.  I took that as a sign.  I was 14 or 15 at the time; it was hugely influential on me, even though I almost gave up after a few pages – it seemed too rude to me then.  Probably because of this early influence, I still love this book.  I now find Isadora slightly grating, but the yearning for freedom still speaks to my condition.

Appetites, Caroline Knapp: the cover caught my eye from across a crowded bookshop.  I bought it & devoured it in one sitting, stood leaning against the bar in my then-local.  A bystander commented that they’d never seen anyone eat Cheddars & drink cider without having to take their eyes off the page.  I loved this book so much that I bought a pile of copies & sent them to friends.  I’ve had mixed reactions from the people I’ve lent it to, but all I can say is that I was profoundly moved by her account – this is someone who feels how I feel was a revelation to me.  I was not alone.

Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf: again, this moved me to tears, simply because it reached out & touched me.  Actually, it grabbed my heart & my mind; Woolf named those feelings & experiences that existed only on the outer reaches of my consciousness – reading this short essay, I knew those encounters to be true for me too.  Whatever my thoughts on her other work, this piece convinced me of her genius – and also, crucially, of her human fraility.  Her sensitivity to the nuances of quotidien existence spoke to my soul.

The Treehouse, Naomi Wolf: my dad passed a copy of this to me when I had my breakdown.  An inspired move on his part: I can’t actually summarise what this book is about, except to say the meaning of life.  Brilliant.

The Wonderful Weekend Book, Elspeth Thompson: this just seemed to find its way into my hands.  It appears to be an simple book of good ideas for doing things at the weekend, but an amazingly refreshing ethos on life glows like a beacon from its pages.  I adore this book & another by Thompson.  I was deeply saddened to hear of the author’s death earlier this year – it haunted me somewhat, as it occurred in the week that I had made a simnel cake using her mother’s recipe & little chicken egg cosies using her pattern.  A sad coincidence.  I like to think I’m doing my small part to keep her legacy alive; a copy of the book is winging its way to a friend right now, hopefully to help & inspire her on her quest in life. 

And the latest: Your Name Written On Water, Irene Gonzalez Frei.  I’m not sure how this came to my attention, but it has.  Books like this just seem to come along as I need them.  Once more, I find myself somewhat shocked about how explicit a book can be (perhaps I’m just more naive than I think I am!).  But in between the raunchy sections there are passages that read as if someone has been spying on my journal, although the prose is far more eloquent than my own ramblings on life & love…

‘And at the time I was still on the lookout for the man of my dreams.  With that feverish anxiety of illusions destined for frustration, I had long been searching for him: down the streest of countless cities, in high school, in casual flings, in sordid, exultatn screws, in close friends, in the eyes of some stranger who caught my eye on a crowded streed.  Mine was a passion with no object, an absurd, obviously conceited pursuit.  The idealized outer shell of what passion should be.  It was an idea of love that I had created, and was focused entirely on myself.  It took the shape of all my desires & the oscillation of all my uncertainities.’

I’m sure others will join this list of signficant books in my life.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve temporarily forgotten, & others still that will enter and leave the list according to my emotional and intellectual needs and desires.  But one thing will remain: the power of books to make me fall in love, both with them & with life itself.

‘Self expression of the healthy kind’ & other reasons why I love knitting

In the 1930s, Miss Helena Powell, principal of St Mary’s College Paddington, described hand crafts as ‘self-expression of the healthy kind’ & advised that making a jumper could help to prevent a nervous breakdown.  I came across these comments in an article when researching my own work on home-dressmaking & handicrafts.  Unfortunately it was too late for me to heed Miss Powell’s somewhat dubious advice on the ‘nerves’ front, but I could certainly identify with her comments. 

Like many, I learnt to knit as a child but it’s only recently that it has become a full-blown hobby.  For many years I didn’t have any hobbies, unless you count drinking & shopping.  All the things that I had loved to do had somehow fallen by the wayside.  It never occurred to me at the time that part of my loneliness, disenchantment & aimlessness stemmed from the simple fact that I didn’t do very much except work, go to the pub & walk around shops.  Slowly – very slowly – this realisation dawned on me.  Knitting was the first such activity to be revived in my quest to simply do something else.

It was a slow development. 

Christmas 2006: some friends bought me a beautiful set of knitting needles.  I must have looked slightly puzzled at their choice of gift, as they immediately assured me that my then-boyfriend had told them that I wanted to resume knitting.  I have no recollection of saying this; I was probably drunk or in the morose stage of a hangover when I did.

January 2007: I purchased a new ‘how to knit’ magazine, the sort that always get launched in the new year – first issue 99p type of thing.  It reminded me how to cast on.  That’s about as far as I got.  No more issues of the magazine were bought.

Sometime in 2008: it was a wet Sunday afternoon, I remember that.  It was around the time that I realised that I needed some hobbies, although I think I still envisaged them as a temporary measure: something seemingly therapeutic to occupy me until I felt ‘better’.  I decided to make a blanket, probably because it was easy – garter stitch squares. 

January 2009: my blanket was complete.  I decided to make another.  This one was completed much more quickly & to a much higher standard.  Seeing the improvement in my skills really encouraged me & I then dared to branch out to other items. 

Since then, my obsession with wool & needles has exploded.  I love knitting because:

1) As Miss Powell knew, it’s such a simple outlet for creativity.  Fairly quickly & easily, you can produce something – ‘I made that’ is an amazing feeling.

2) It’s the perfect balance between thinking/not thinking.  Knitting absorbs me enough to stop me thinking about other things but doesn’t require too much concentration.  It’s like meditation; it clears your brain.

3) Because it doesn’t require huge amounts of concentration, you can combine it with certain other activities.  My favourite is looking.  I like to knit & look at other things, like the view from train windows.

4) It is portable.  You don’t need lots of expensive equipment & you can take it around with you. 

5) Unlike many other hobbies, it doesn’t require anyone else for it to work.  You can knit alone or…

6) You can knit sociably, with other people also knitting, or simply with other people around you.  Plus…

7) Knitting is incredibly sociable in that it seems to be an activity that bonds people.  When I knit on trains, loads of people ask what I’m making.  Everyone has a story to tell about knitting, be it a much-loved gran who always knitted or a much-loved jumper that their gran knitted for them.

8) Knitting creates a community, formally (like a knitting group) or informally: knitters seem to be able to sniff each other out, like members of a cult or the masons or something.  I’ve yet to figure out how, but we can.

10) Knitting is useful.  You can make stuff that you or others can use.  The knitter who I’m friends with in the village makes clothes for the still-born babies at the local hospital; tiny, beautiful white coats & bonnets that they can be buried in – often standard baby clothes aren’t small enough.  I think that is the most amazing thing I have ever heard in my entire life.

11) Like those baby clothes, you can knit with love.  The time & effort involved in making a gift for someone is knitted into every stitch.  Sometimes I can’t express how much I love my friends & family in words, but I can say it in wool.  A friend’s little girl is about to turn one; I can’t make it to see her, but making her present (a very soft & squidy pink & cream knitted birthday cake!), I can show that I care & am thinking of her.  Finding the time to make a gift when you think that you don’t have the time is part of this – wanting to make gifts has really made me consider where my priorities lie.

I could go on listing lots more reasons to love knitting: being able to support small independent retailers; a long feminist tradition of re-evaluating traditional feminine skills; & so on… But I won’t as I’m getting tired & starting to ramble.  I’m exhausted after a long day, sitting in the garden, doing very little except (what else could it be?!) knitting.

Decisions, decisions

Many moons ago, I went out for dinner to celebrate a friend’s engagement.  At the time, I was just finishing uni, single & with no definite plans or commitments for the future.  As so often happens, my friend who had got engaged & I ended up having a long chat in the ladies toilet at the restaurant.  Despite it being her engagement, my friend expressed envy at my footloose & fancy free situation.  She said she knew was heading in a different direction & that she was closing the door on many possibilities & opportunities because she really wanted to marry & have a family.  She was conscious of her choice & its implications.

My friend is now married to her fiance.  She lives in a lovely house & they have a beautiful baby daughter.  I am, once again, coming to then end of a period of study, single & with no definite plans or commitments for the future.  I have thought often about what my friend said that evening.  Too often I haven’t been conscious about the choices I’ve made, particularly when it comes to relationships, finding myself further down the line in a situation I hadn’t envisaged or desired. 

This week I have had a complete crisis of confidence in my ability to make such decisions & about the decisions that I have made.  As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, ‘Liberty is terrifying but also exhilirating’.  The last few days have felt very much more terrifying than exhilirating.  I’ve felt crippled by a sense of poor choices & bad decision making: what if I’ve been going the wrong way?  What if I haven’t chosen the right direction?  Where am I going?

This morning, these fears & doubts came to boiling-point.  I couldn’t decide what to wear; it was like I didn’t trust my own judgement with even the smallest of choices.  I sat on my bed & cried – proper big tears, the kind that run all the way down your body & collect in your navel.  With my tears flowed out my fears & doubts & concerns.  As I sat sobbing, I knew that such moments are perhaps an inevitable consequence of my decision to pursue a life of my own; ultimately I can only rely on my own inner validation, not approval or reassurance from someone else.  Hence, I need to be able to break the paralysis of decision-making, big or small.  I had to just push on with my errands for the day; I couldn’t be defeated or sabotaged by my own demons.

Early afternoon, I needed something to keep me going until lunch.  Stood in Boots surrounded by every snack imaginable, I felt paralysed by choices again.  I must have looked like a crazy shoplifter, keep picking up packets & then returning them to the shelves.  In the end, I left the shop empty-handed.  I wandered aimlessly down the street, my mind consumed with a tirade of snack-related choices.  Enough is enough!  I walked into Greggs.  I looked at the fridge.  I surveyed each shelf in turn.  I saw a bottle of Fairtrade orange juice.  I knew that was the right choice for me.  I bought it.  I drank it.  And with that one simple choice, my faith in my own ability to make decisions & confidence in the decisions I make was restored. 

Band Aid

Sometimes we all need a band aid.  By this I mean a sticking plaster, not the 1980s famine relief fundraising single, although I have a penchant for that too (any song that requires you to cup your hand around your ear & pretend it’s a microphone is good in my book).

Yesterday & today I’ve need several band aids.  My mood has ‘swung from high to low, extremes of sweet & sour’, to quote James (over-identifying with song lyrics always seems to be a bad sign in terms of interpreting my own moods, I’ve come to realise).  There are manifold reasons why my thoughts & feelings have been so irratic; fortunately being off work for a few days is giving me the time & space to reflect on the swings & shifts and delve into what lies beneath (inside my head feels like a Woody Allen movie most of the time). 

At the same time as allowing myself time & space to reflect on what lies beneath (& admitting that there are some pretty big changes going on around me, some of which are rocking the foundations of my life & forcing further questioning of what I’m doing, where I’m going & who I am – all of which would warrant thousands of posts of their own!), I’m trying hard to not allow myself to be dragged down.  So out come the band aids, the things that I know work for me & make me feel better – or at least sane. 

Today, these band aids have involved: purging my emails; tackling a work-related task to the extent I can do no more until other people have done their bits; having lunch with my mum & godmother; playing with my niece & nephew; making an appointment for blood donation; sorting a Rape Crisis support letter to go to the Home Secretary (easy to do & satisfying beyond belief!); making a congratulations card; writing some other cards & stamping them ready to post (the happiness that sticking stamps on envelopes brings me is immeasurable & possibly slightly unhinged); checking times for a squash court next week; re-arranging a beautician’s appointment; sorting dropping off some handbags to a friend; ordering a library book; sewing a button on; writing a cheque.

None of these are significant acts in themselves.  But individually – & even more so collectively – they have served to make me feel better: I am a functioning adult with skills & talents & friends & family & a life that I have created.  These acts may only be sticking plasters, covering the wounds underneath, but sometimes those band aids are needed to help the healing process along.

Great Expectations

On Monday, I handed a draft of my thesis to my bosses.  This marked the beginning of a period of limbo: a few weeks of sort-of holiday, where I haven’t much work that I can do so can largely have a break until the final surge to finishing begins.  Good stuff – or so I thought.

On Tuesday, I woke up in a foul mood.  I had the mean reds, good & proper.  Negative thoughts – the really destructive, insidious, soul-destroying kind – overwhelmed the good mood that is now my usual mental state.  My day transpired to be quite jolly & my mood picked up, but that underlying malaise – the self-doubt & self-hatred, loathing & repulsion – stubbornly refused to shift. 

I know why it is, why this day that should be pleasant & enjoyable was sabotaged by the inner workings of my mind: great expectations.  I had, against my better judgement, allowed a dream vision of this day to form in my mind: I’d get up & have a leisurely morning, maybe completing a few essential chores; later in the day, I’d go to my nephew’s tea party & then out with friends, generally wafting around looking & feeling fabulous.

Reality, of course, rarely lives up to the dreams that we conjure up, especially when we are plagued by human frailities that diminish our own sense of worth & value.  The mental space vacated by handing over my thesis had overnight been filled by a whole host of other concerns & desires, all of which conspired to make me feel un-worthy of a lovely, relaxed day.  I felt undeserving of happiness & holidays, adding to the expectations of the day by piling on expectations of myself: I should be losing weight; getting fitter; looking for a job; attending to my neglected hands & feet; making some cards & gifts; visiting people; repairing my housedress; sorting my Amazon listings; cleaning; visiting friends; replying to emails; sitting in the garden & reading. 

And so the list went on.  It’s the modern day curse of the ‘superwoman’: I feel, & pressure myself, that I should be able to do everything & do everything perfectly.  I cut myself no slack for having just completed a major deadline, just having been in hospital, or indeed just being human.  At the same time, from deep inside come questions about my ability to do any of these things: you are fat, ugly, stupid & generally rubbish being the overall tone of such inner dialogue. 

Today I feel better.  The inner voices have subsided somewhat, although they haven’t gone completely.  I’m still feel paralysed, unable to anything because (a) I don’t know what to do first & (b) I doubt my ability to do any of it properly.  I have even been debating whether to simply delete all this rather than posting it:  this is boring, no-one will want to read it; why do you think you can write & that anyone will care about what you have to say; stop navel-gazing, you over-indulgent & conceited fool.  But I shall post it.  And then I will do something.  Even if it’s only to roll over & go back to sleep.  Although sleep probably wouldn’t help.  It would only add to the list of great expectations, as I’d expect to sleep & then miraculously wake up to discover that I suddenly felt better about everything.