Phone rings.  It’s my friend, calling about our road trip tomorrow (v exciting!). 

Friend: ‘What are you doing?’

Me: ‘I making up my shoebox for the children’s Christmas presents charity thing.’

Friend: ‘What a lovely way to spend a Friday afternoon.’

She was right.  It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. 

Rien, rien… Non, je regrette rien…

I watched a documentary that featured Edith Piaf the other week and since then, I’ve had the chorus of her most famous song intermittently blaring out in my head.  ‘Je regrette rien’ took on added poignancy yesterday as I found myself lying in bed, unable to sleep and mulling over the things in life that I do regret.  I guess this reflects that I now suddenly have a lot of time to think, but is probably also because I feel like I am leaving an old life behind and beginning a new one.  What do I regret about the old one?

After a lot of inner wrangling, and a lot of journal writing, I realised that my regrets are generally not about events or opportunities; there was little ‘I wish I had done this’ or ‘I was I had taken that chance’.  Instead, my regrets focused overwhelmingly on times when I feel that I didn’t maintain the standard of integrity to which I aspire – the times when I let someone down, or didn’t do what I knew was right, or behaved in a way that I am not proud of.  This realisation – this sense of clarity about what it is that I end up regretting – was extremely cathartic, turning what could have been a depressing, soul-destroying exercise into something that ultimately I can learn from.  This probably attests to my self-help geekery, but after all the soul-searching, I was able to draw up a list of ‘actions’ and ways to move forward and develop.  For each regret, I thought about what I could do to alter that feeling.  In many cases, I came up with a simple action or gesture that will, to some degree, allow me to make amends or simply express my regret to the other person involved.  This may not be the ideal solution, it may not compensate for whatever has happened (intentional or not), but sometimes this is the only option – particularly if we’re years down the line.  In other instances, I had to simply let that regret ‘be’; there may be nothing that can be done – either by me or by anyone else – and I can’t carry that sense of burden round forever.  Sitting in the quiet of the middle of the night, it felt a suitable moment to pause and reflect on these regrets and let them drift off, float away….

Crucially, from all my regrets, I take away a valuable lesson.  Actually facing these negative feelings, and thinking about my own role within them, has made me more aware about my own behaviour – tendencies that I have, automatic reactions that perhaps are not the healthiest in the longer-term.  I can see the damage that can be caused and I can try to alter my behaviour.  This may not be easy, but it is better than stumbling along blindly, unaware and unknowing, making the same mistakes over and over and over.  At the end of this phase in my life, I have looked and learnt from my past.  And hopefully I’ll be able to sing more heartly along with Piaf in the future: rrrrrien, rrrrrien… non, je rrrregrette rrrrien… I just need to practise rolling my rs.

The Big Silence

For two days in a row now, the BBC have inspired, reassured and encouraged me on my own quest by showing other people on similar – strikingly similar – journeys.  The example discussed in yesterday’s post, Catherine Sackville-West, was from the somewhat unlikely source of Wonderland’s ‘High Society Brides’ documentary.  Tonight’s source was a rather more obvious one: The Big Silence, a series in which a Benedectine monk accompanies five people, all with busy, twenty-first century lives, on journeys into silence.  The program – the first in the series – aired on Friday.  A friend recommended it to me, knowing that my return to Quakerism – the way of life I’d grown up surrounded by – was inextricably linked with my own foray into silence after a hugely noisy period in my life.

I didn’t agree with the all the points made in the program; in particular, I struggled to relate to the ‘certainty’ about God expressed by the monks.  It seemed funny that these monks – with a theological standpoint so, so very different from my own – could express experiences that I have undergone.  I would recommend this program to anyone who has ever thought ‘What is the point?’  or ‘What is life all about?’, regardless of their views on religion and notions of ‘god’.  I found enormous parallels between their nascent journeys into silence and my own quest.  To give one example, a woman named Helen – who described herself as a ‘non-believer’, or someone believing in herself rather than ‘God’ – talked about being moved by going into the monk’s chapel and she wasn’t sure why; she just knew that it had affected her.  I so understand how she felt: for a number of years, I couldn’t go into a Quaker meeting house because I couldn’t handle the space.  This seemed a particularly strange reaction as Quaker meeting houses are not consecrated or considered sacrosanct in anyway; as their name indicates, they are ‘meeting houses’, not churches or chapels.  It wasn’t a sense of ‘holiness’ that intimdated me or made me feel a failure.  My aversion came from a desire to avoid confronting the truth: I didn’t want to face the huge disjuncture between the reality of my life and the values that I held dearest to me.  The gap between who I seemed to be and who I knew myself to be on the inside had grown so wide, so wide that I was in real danger of losing touch with the inner self altogether – and probably did for many years.  In the silence, there is no escape, no way to avoid the uncomfortable truth. 

In the silence, you confront the good and the bad; the joys and the fears.  But through this, you learn to access yourself on the inside – stripped bare.  There is nowhere to hide, no facade, no mask.  You feel exposed; vulnerable.  For me, and I believe that I’m not alone, facing the silence (and learning to relish it, love it, thrive on it) leads to a life lived more abundantly – but the path is not necessarily easy or even easier.  The road is hard, but the rewards are great.  Too much is at stake to not face that challenge: one’s true sense of self, one’s life.  I see others around me – my friend who recommended the program, other people at my local Quaker meeting – who are also on a similar journey, but to see it writ large on a television screen (well, my 10" inch laptop screen) was surprisingly comforting.  I wait with interest to see how they get in on in the next episode.  In the meantime, I’ll try to keep all five of the participants in my thoughts during my own daily periods of silence.

In my own wonderland…

This afternoon, I spent a very pleasant hour lying on the sofa watching a recording of BBC2’s latest Wonderland documentary.  These programmes never fail to inspire & amuse me, each managing to find an intriguing and unusual slice of life and present them in a straightforward manner: there’s no sense of a joke being played on the participants, no sly digs but no being sycophantic either.  Some participants you like, some you don’t like, but the judgement is always yours to make, with little input from the production team. 

This week’s episode was entitled ‘High Society Brides’.  I thought it looked quite fun to watch – a glimpse into how the other half lived in the not-too-distant past – but ended up finding it quite moving & thought-provoking on a level that I hadn’t imagined.  My politics are such that I hold little admiration for the upper-classes and I have little nostlgia for their heyday; I used to love You Rang M’Lord? as a child (I still do love it) but even back then I was aware enough to realise that had I been born a hundred years earlier, I would have been part of life ‘downstairs’ rather than up.  Despite this, I found that much in the stories of the five women featured spoke across class-boundaries.  Some of the participants seemed more likeable than others – and some expressed views that I found misguided to the point of abhorrence – but the issues of beauty and ageing, alcoholism, social pressure, gender roles, expectations of romance and idealism, were universal and not limited to the privileged world of Country Life magazine. 

I particularly took to Catherine Sackville-West, whose fabulous outfits, enviable job (assistant casting director at the Royal Opera House) and lovely home portrayed a life as I imagine my own in a couple of decades’ time.  Reflecting on remaining single since the end of her short-lived marriage, Sackville-West made the following comment:

I don’t need someone to sit on the sofa and watch telly with.  I mean, it’s such a sort of over-used cliche to describe myself as a free-spirit but I think I probably am and it was as though, with my marriage, that was the one moment in my life where I kind of broke faith with that and did something that was kind of against my instincts and against my character and that’s probably one of the reasons why it didn’t work.  I don’t know, I don’t think I’m marriage material.

Her words so clearly spoke to me and seemed to chime in accord with this project/blog, encouraging me to stick to my guns and reassuring me that I am not alone in my quest. Her words also made me chuckle, as watching TV appears to be an activity around which many statements about relationships focus: along with Sackville-West’s I don’t need someone to sit on the sofa and watch telly with, another favourite quotation of mine is I’m finding more pleasure in a tray of tea and a boiled egg in front of the telly than I ever found in that bed with him – made by a widow in Sally Kline’s book Women, Passion and Celibacy.

Sackville-West’s words also spoke to me on a day when I’m beginning a new journal.  I like to write something inspiring on the first page, so have copied her words down in the middle – the first bright dash of blue ink on a fresh page.  Sackville-West has created a life of her own, a world briefly glimpsed in the Wonderland documentary and as I sit here now, blogging away in in the lamplight, surrounded by my most treasured possessions and artefacts, I feel that I am in my own little wonderland too. 

Fat Saturday

Today I have had a ‘Fat Saturday’.  I read about the ‘Fat Saturday’ idea in Domestic Bliss by Rita Konig, one of my favourite books-to-read-in-bed-on-a-lazy-Saturday-morning type of books.  Konig, former Vogue contributor on all things home-related, describes something that I’m sure many of us have felt at various times:

‘I defy anyone to say they have not had one of these.  Even the skinniest of girls complain of bloated stomachs, usually a little wheat intolerance, or even those dreadfully depressing swollen ankles, which really send your legs off kilter.  But beyond just feeling fat they are also low-on-morale days when the world is doing you wrong.  These are not the days to go off and try to find the perfect pair of jeans.’

This definitely sums up how I felt this morning.  I was ‘low on morale’, probably suffering from a post-submission anti-climax and a sense of foreboding about the future.  So what to do?  Here is my six-point cheer-myself up plan – well, not quite a plan, but this is how it worked out…

1) Visited my great aunt Doreen.  Like so many women of her generation, she has worked so hard & dealt with so many things, yet is always cheerful & smiling.  During my BA, I interviewed her about being in women’s organisations and her love & enthusiasm for her groups really captured my interest & inspired me.  Women’s organisations remained a key area of my research in my PhD, so I decided to dedicate my thesis to her.  I told her this today, and although she seemed pleased, she was more interested in my love life – or lack of, I should say. 

2) Went into my local town.  Retail therapy is not my usual choice for cheering myself up – it can involved more traumas than joys and I’m sceptical about how ‘happy’ it ever makes anyone – but today I actually needed some things: hair bobbles and pinking shears.  A random combo, but both essential for my latest crafting project (details will be added when it’s complete – and when the recipient has received their gift!).  While in town, I also visited my friend’s new vintage clothes stall.  And ended up buying a fab Chanel-esque red cardigan with gold buttons.  It’s fab and hanging it on the outside of my wardrobe since I’ve got home has made me smile everytime it catches my eye.  It’s like a huge knitted cherry.

3) Cleaned my room.  Having a good clean is one of Konig’s tips for dealing with a Fat Saturday, as the end results are always so uplifting – there’s nothing more depressing than feeling like you live in a hovel.  My bedroom was particularly in need of a clean as it had been heavily neglected over the last few weeks of work.  Pranced around with a duster, listening to the Chelsea/Wolves game and an hour later – voila!  Shiny, sparkling room.  Well, almost – didn’t quite have time to hoover but with the low level lighting from my lamps you can’t really see the floor.  That can wait another day or so.

4) Fish and chips for tea.  With mushy peas.  A guaranteed route to happiness.

5) Playing with my niece & nephew.  Recreating a bit of Strictly with my niece; we developed quite a natty Charleston routine involving slapping our knees.  Read to my nephew – a Spot the Dog story and then ‘Postman Pat’s Difficult Day’ – it was lovely having him cuddle up to me, plus reading was a handy distraction from X Factor which was on TV in the same room.  I worked v hard on blanking it out.  I didn’t even look at what Cheryl & Dannii were wearing – that’s hardcore resistance to temptation.

6) Sitting on my bed writing this blog.  Reflecting on my day has made me realise that it’s been lovely after all & the black fog hanging over me has lifted – especially as I look around at my new bright & beautiful new cardigan and clean, sparkling room.  Everything is glinting and gleaning, reflecting the light from the lamps – just how I feel inside.

Pulling up the drawbridge

Today is day two of the new, post-submission phase of my life (It feels too much like tempting fate to say ‘post-PhD’ as I still have my viva & alterations to face in a couple of months, so ‘post-submission’ will do for now!). And what have I done with my time? Well, I feel as though I’ve pulled up a drawbridge. I’ve spent some of the day playing with my niece & nephew – always a joy, especially when my niece & I were doing some flamenco dancing to my nephew’s drumming. Much of my time, though, has been spent sat on my bed, with very little desire to be anywhere else in the entire world. I’ve been flicking through some of my favourite books (Vintage Style by Cath Kidston & The Gentle Art of Domesticity by Jane Brockett). I’ve also done a lot of knitting: finishing off the stripey scarf, making the pattern and a prototype of a Christmas tree decoration, starting a second of these deccies.

I’ve felt quite conscious of both my solitary mood – the desire to pull up the drawbridge & simply be alone, in my own private world of simple pleasures & indulgences, with no disturbances or demands – and the urge, the nagging insistence within, that I should be doing something crafty. I’m not sure why I feel I need to be making something. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last five years crafting something – the thesis – and now it’s gone, leaving a huge gaping hole that I’m trying to fill with knitting. Maybe it’s because of the current economic climate; perhaps I’m trying to create a sense of self-sufficiency or productivity – ‘Look, I can make things with my own hands’ – even though I’ve no intention of using those items to trade with. Maybe it’s because my main occupation has now ended quite abruptly – after a period of intensity rather than winding down to the finish – and I’m trying to subconsciously occupy myself in a different way. Maybe I’m clinging on to a different aspect of myself now that the work has gone; I’ve wanted to do a PhD for so long that I can’t really remember it not being part of my ambitions – so now it’s handed over and out of my hands, I don’t know what to do with myself. I guess it’s like that with many long-held dreams: you think about them & plan for them for so long that you don’t really consider what life will be like afterwards. I hadn’t accounted for the fact I would continue to live after submission – like many bridezillas who seem to forget that after their wedding day, they will be married. To that person. For a long time.

Whatever the reasons, it’s very enjoyable being able to spend pretty much a whole day crafting (a weekday, no less!) and not feel guilty about it. It’s also lovely to create something from my own imagination (admittedly inspired by an M&S decoration which I thought I could do a better – and cheaper – version of!) in such a short time: almost instant gratification, rather than waiting for five years for the results of the thesis. So I’ll make the most of pulling up my drawbridge & wallowing in my own private universe for a little bit longer, finishing another Christmas tree decoration while watching Nigella & then Hugh in an hour or so (hurray for comfort TV again!). Although I will try to go out tomorrow and re-enter the world. If I stay to long in my own little world, there’s a danger I’ll become the mad woman in the attic. And I’ll probably die under the weight of my own knitting.

Ending the day nicely part IV / Starting the day nicely part I….

It is 12.20pm on Wednesday and I am wearing my dressing-gown as I type.  As this snippet of information may indicate, I have submitted my thesis!  I took it up yesterday & got it printed, bound and handed-in with no major hiccups – in fact, the day went so smoothly that even with a detour on the way home, I was still back in time for tea. 

My detour was via Mow Cop in Cheshire, part of which – along with the stunning views from it – are shown in the photographs.  Earlier this year, my dad & I were working in Manchester at the same time, hence shared lifts.  On the journey home, we’d always comment about this strange ruin & the village surrounding it on the top of a hill visible from the M6.  As my dad very kindly took me up to uni yesterday – my nerves probably weren’t up for the drive myself & going via car meant I could get there earlier than I would on the train – he suggested we stop off at the place on the way home & finally discover what was there. 

Despite the pouring rain, it was definitely worth stopping off – it’s a beautiful place & paying a visit solved the mystery of what exactly it was that we could see.  Also, it was perhaps the last convenient chance to go and take a look.  Since September 2004, I have either lived in Manchester or spent a lot of my time there.  Now my PhD is in, the obvious link is severed.  Even many of my friends up there have moved on.  And so has my life. 

Although I am somewhat prone to bouts of nostalgia, rather than thinking about what has passed (or what might have been) since my link with Manchester began, I feel excited & focused on the future.  Someone remarked yesterday that a phase has ended & my instant response was yes, but at the same time another is beginning.  I don’t know what lies ahead in this new phase, but when opening my curtains this morning, I was greeted by the gift that my mum had given me yesterday to mark submission: a munchkin pumpkin, catching the light (also in the photographs).  It seemed an auspicious start: the end of one day and the start of another; the end of one phase and the start of the next; from rain and clouds to bright, beautiful orange and sunshine.