Category Archives: Observations

Rest Days

With ‘hard work’ held as a value and overstimulation being normal for down time, a day of rest can be a challenging thing to pull off. However, running flat out forever is not a viable option, and I’ve faced the truth repeatedly that if I don’t plan my stops, there will come a point of being forced to take them, and the timing then is often lousy.

I find physical rest days difficult in no small part because my feet are my primary form of transport. A day resting means not walking anywhere, which seriously limits my scope for being sociable. My down time has to be the sort of thing I can do in the flat. I find crafting works well for such days, although that does mean my hands are busy, if I take it gently I don’t put much extra strain on them.

Mental rest is a totally different process and I find it’s often best served by getting outside and doing something with my body. Long walks help me clear my head. Failing that, short walks are always a help.

I’m conscious that for many people, rest means flopping down in front of a screen. I’ve also noticed that for me, this isn’t always effective for brain rest, because I tend to think about what I’m watching, and it’s easy to over-stimulate my mind if I’m already overtired. Watching is an easy answer, and thus very tempting when knackered, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the effects and fettling accordingly.

I try to make sure that brain and body get sufficient rest time on a day to day basis, but even so, the whole day off needs to come round every now and then. Total rest for the brain is something I seldom want, but when I do, it’s a case of just lying in the duvet and making room for nothing to happen.

Of course it’s often possible to push through this and keep busy, putting the hard work as an imagined virtue ahead of wellness and moving myself towards physical illness and mental breakdown. It has been hard to pull away from that, to stop, to recognise that it’s not heroic to keep pushing on and it’s seldom necessary. Plus, if I rest when I need to I get more done when I’m working. While a focus on efficiency does keep me tied to the idea that work is everything, it is a way of fighting fire with fire. Should I stop now? Well, how is that going to affect my productivity tomorrow?


Life and clutter

De-cluttering, like weight loss is often presented as a universal good. The ideal – of the tranquil, stuff-free home has some curious assumptions underpinning it, though.

The first assumption is that we have a lot of stuff we don’t need. Set yourself the challenge of getting rid of a hundred things! The second assumption is that the ideal living environment doesn’t have much stuff in it.

I imagine I’m not alone in finding largely empty, pristine spaces a bit intimidating. I like having things to look at – colour and disarray enhances that experience for me. I like the friendly feeling of being surrounded by life.

Not all clutter is created equally, but for me, life is messy. The table we work and eat at is fairly cluttered because it is also home to art equipment and books.  There’s a pile of things people are reading, or intending to read on the footrest. By the sofa, is the mayhem of a yarn stash being turned into things. In the bedroom, there’s a fabric stash I use for making, and rather a lot of books. There’s musical instruments, shelves of crafting gear, and the kitchen is a tad chaotic not least because food from scratch happens most days.

When looking at ‘clutter’ I think it’s important to look at the lifestyle that goes with the clutter. If you’re surrounded by things you don’t use and that are in the way, that’s an issue. If the mayhem is the side-effect of creativity, of people doing stuff (games, toys etc) then to get rid of the clutter is to get rid of the life. In a perfectly tidy home, with no piles of work in progress stuff, what would I do?


Beauty is as beauty does

While I can and do appreciate the many forms in which physical human beauty can manifest, I’ve never found it terribly persuasive. A beautiful image has undeniable charm, and I’ll cheerfully look, but I’ve never acted on the power of visual beauty alone. I’m more interested in what a person does, who they are, how they are. The apparently beautiful face looks very different when sneering, or delivering a vicious putdown.

I’ve noticed over and over again how my sense of the beauty of a person comes far more from who they are than any pattern of physical characteristics. Generosity, humour, creativity, passion, honour, courage, integrity, intensity, compassion… these things cause people to be beautiful. If I see greed, cruelty, mean spiritedness, one upmanship, jealousy, and the like, there can be no real beauty in that face. Of course in practise we’re all complex mixes of feelings and we all run a broad spectrum and what matters is where a person spends most of their time.

I fell in love with Tom before I met him. I fell in love with him without hearing his voice, or having any idea what, if anything, the body chemistry would be like. On the day of posting this, we have been married 6 years, and I expect us to be together for life. I fell in love with his ideas, his art, his creativity and the person I came to know through emails. He fell in love with my writing first. I trust this more than I trust the appeal of a face, or a nice bum.

One of the problems with bodies is that they change. We tend to get older, we wrinkle, sag, blemish, illness and accident can change us dramatically. I’d rather wake up next to a person who is full of love, kindness and a desire to co-operate than the most perfectly toned abdomen in the world, if it’s attached to someone unkind. I’d rather the face into which time has carved laughter lines, or marked with grief, than a face augmented to show nothing at all.

If I love who someone is, and how they are, and what they do, then I will love the physical form they take. I will love the details of them – warts and all, in delight and acceptance. Equally, if I find someone unpleasant, no amount of the visual aspect will impact on me at all.


Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?


Working Sick

One of the good things about being self employed is that you do get some say (usually) over how and when you work. There are no paid sick days though, and while you can get insured against the impact of long term illness, a dose of the flu is something you just have to deal with. So, sleep deprived because I was ill in the night, and washed out for all the same reasons, and with something a long way short of perfect concentration, I rock up late to the computer.

It’s not too bad because my co-worker (husband) lives with me and is exposed to my germs anyway. If I had a ‘normal’ job, I might be hauling my sick, exhausted self into a car (I would not be a safe driver) and going to share my germs with my colleges, and possibly the public.

I know from friends who are employed, that many workplaces are intolerant of sick days. You are expected to go in, which of course means you get a culture of germ sharing where more people are working sick than could have happened. It invariably takes longer to recover from anything if you have to put extra stresses on your body. A day in the duvet can massively increase productivity for the rest of the week.

But no, what we have is a culture of macho toughing it out, drugging away the symptoms (let’s pause and ask why we may have the shits and wonder what the consequence is of not letting our bodies flush the bugs out…).

Pushing when sick or exhausted increases the risk of mental health issues. Depression is likely, so is panic, because when you push a body too far, that’s how it reacts. There is a rise in mental health difficulties that a Chief Medical Officer’s report of some years ago explicitly linked to work place stress. Everyone seems to have ignored this.

So, I managed the commute to the table, I won’t be doing much, I will likely spend a lot of the day curled up, recovering. I’m going to do the essential stuff, so that it doesn’t all build up and get more stressful. This is a luxury many people don’t have. It’s a funny thing, because work, workplaces, and working cultures are all human constructs, but they’re pretty inhuman in practice.


Until God

‘Adieu’ in French doesn’t simply mean goodbye, it means goodbye forever. One of the things I love about French as a language is this need for the dramatic farewell. ‘Until God’ – because we’re not going to see each other again before then.

Of course we often don’t know when we’re saying goodbye for the last time. Every farewell has the potential to be farewell forever.

Say ‘farewell forever’ in English, and most people will hear melodrama. It’s not the sort of thing we have a cultural habit of saying seriously. That’s true of all big, dramatic emotional expression. In this language, we find it hard to take big things seriously – we hear irony, fuss-making, silliness. Say ‘this is goodbye forever’ and most people probably won’t believe you.

There are of course times when ‘goodbye forever’ is necessary. Some people, and some situations are intolerable to the point whereby leaving and never coming back is really the only sensible thing to do. Having ‘goodbye forever’ heard in that context might help others take onboard how serious it is, which could in turn lead to change. If not for me, then for the person who comes into the same situation after me.

Because of course it is personal, and not broadly hypothetical as I write this post today. I didn’t say ‘goodbye forever’ but I doubt what I did say will be heard as it was meant. I’ve made choices that mean there are people I will probably never see again, and to whom I said goodbye in person not knowing then that it was most likely an ‘adieu’.

Would a change of language have changed anything? Would the enormity and finality of ‘adieu’ have shaken people up to take me seriously? Maybe. Maybe not. English lacks the words for some situations, and as speakers of this language, we lack the mental framework for dealing with emotionally serious situations.

Until God, then, for some of this. (Curiously, ‘adios’ in Spanish has the same literal meaning but not the connotation of finality.)

Which as a Maybeist, is a fairly weird thing for me to say anyway, because I have no gods. There will be no afterlife for me that has everyone I care about in it where people can be re-united and past wrongs overcome. If it doesn’t happen in this life, it doesn’t happen, most likely.


Reputation

Who we are in the eyes of the world is something most of us care about. How we are seen, valued, judged and whether we are accepted. In theory, a reputation should be the consequence of who we are and what we do, and thus something we have control over, but in practice it is seldom that simple.

The easiest place to point for examples is the arts. Look at any breakthrough creator who changed things radically – Beethoven, Van Gogh – they were criticised far more than they were loved in their lifetimes. Even The Beatles were considered rowdy bad boys when they first appeared, and it’s only after decades that they’ve become something more ‘establishment’. The first impressionists were mocked. The reputations of many creative people aren’t defined until after their death, and there many ‘greats’ who, during their own lives, were never recognised.

On the flip side history is also full of people who were massively popular at the time, and have faded into obscurity since. Name a composer of Music Hall songs, or the kind of gothic romance author Jane Austin was mocking in Northanger Abbey, or any of the chivalric novels Cervantes took the piss out of with Don Quixote. Ten years hence, most of the ‘pop idol’ reality TV show folk will have been forgotten. Some reputations are vastly inflated for short periods – undeserved (to my mind) attention went to Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray recently, but they’re already slipping into the shadows, and I doubt in a hundred years time, anyone will have heard of them.

Reputation, therefore, is not always deserved. It’s also not something we can control, no matter how good our PR. Most of us of course will never have PR, never have to worry about posterity, or how history will judge us, and that too is a sort of judgement. Most of our ancestors are not in the history books.

Regardless of how many people we’re dealing with, reputation is a key part of how we interact with others, and reputations can be nothing more than a web of lies with a sugar coating of sparkly misdirection. We all make up stories and myths about ourselves, and other people make their own stories about us, too. Reputation is the unnatural child of these stories.

Those in the public eye can spend a fortune trying to manage their reputations and appearance. The rest of us may be no less obsessed, but less well funded, and with a smaller audience to play to, we have to make our own fun…  Social media may have made us far more conscious of how we construct our public personas, but it doesn’t put us in charge.

There is a part of ourselves we may never truly know, and certainly can’t do much to control, but which will influence our lives and options in countless ways. That aspect is who other people think we are, what of us they latch onto, what of other people’s stories they choose to believe, what they forgive, and don’t forgive, what they think was deliberate, and what they think we did by accident, or by mistake.

Or we can do our best to meet each other without assumption, to take each other at face value, to deal with the reality of what’s going on, not second guessing based on what we think we know


The trouble with Fun

I become uneasy when people start brandishing the word ‘fun’ about, from experience it’s seldom good news. So, for your amusement, here are some fun phrases with possible interpretations.

“It will be fun” It will be fun for me and I expect you to go along with this.

“It’s just a bit of harmless fun” I just did something horrible – racist, sexist, cruel, trolling etc, and I’m fine with that. I will also say this to defend things like fox hunting and rape jokes, and to dismiss the victim.

“I thought we were just having fun.” I just had casual sex with you, I may have said a lot of things I didn’t mean, to get in your pants. I want you to go away now and I am not responsible for how you feel.

“Can’t we just do something fun?” I know you’re deep in personal crisis right now, I know the climate is changing and species extinction is happening but I’d rather not think about any of that or have to feel responsible in any way, please take your problems/do gooding someplace else.

“You aren’t any fun to be around.” You are depressed, anxious, hurt, and I don’t want to be overtly un-PC by mentioning this. You have real problems and I have no desire to help. I don’t like it when you cry. When I did the things that were just a bit of harmless fun and you didn’t like it and cried, I felt uncomfortable and I’m blaming you for that.

“Person X is far more fun than you.” I want you to compete for my attention, and I hope you feel insecure and like I might be going to spend more time with them and less with you.

“We just went out and had some fun.” I spent over fifty pounds on booze, threw up on a stranger, undertook some random acts of vandalism, I’ve lost one of my shoes and am itchy in a way that makes me wonder if I caught an STD, but I don’t really remember having sex.

“We had to make our own fun.” I lived somewhere with nothing to do and as a consequence spent my formative years with underage drinking and sex being my main hobbies. I have amused myself by doing things that I know it is advisable not to mention in public, either because they’re illegal, or shockingly dull.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a flavour. I’ve had variations on a lot of these conversations along the way, (although that last one owes a lot to my teens) and I’ve learned to recognise ‘fun’ as a hazardous word, and when people start using it this way… it’s no fun at all!


Stories for healing

For a while now, I’ve been writing stories as a way of tackling things in my head I can’t take on more directly. Some things work best in metaphor. It’s a way of processing what otherwise has been impossible to deal with. The story below also had an interesting process aspect to it. In using these metaphors, I became able to see some things I had not seen before. Ways forward emerge. So, I offer the story, and also the approach. If there are unsayable things, then turning them into characters in a faux-fairytale can make it possible to talk about them, and get to grips with them.

And they all lived…

The prison is small, cramped. Not perfectly dark. Enough gloom to obscure, enough light to suggest. Light, and hope are often what get us into most trouble. It is too small a cell to accommodate a person and a demon. It doesn’t help that the demon is furious. Its mouth is full of hunger and broken glass. When it bites, it poisons. Words flow from it as bile and toxin, bite and breathe. Words gnawed into bones.

“Worthless,” it says. “Ridiculous ugly waste of space.”

It has claws for rending. It uses them.

“Misuse of carbon.”

The demon has large feet, for trampling.

“You’ll never achieve anything, anyway. Never justify your pathetic existence. Expensive nuisance. You should kill yourself. It’s the only good thing you’ll ever be able to do. Your only possible contribution. You’re a burden. Unwanted. Stop it. Stop your breath. Stop your heart.”

Perhaps death would silence the demon. Sometimes, it seems the only way. A soul this contaminated can never be redeemed, surely?

I am the prison cell. I am the demon. I am the weeping child prisoner. I am the blood under the fingernails, and I am the bruises. I am the crying and the resentment of crying. I am the skin tearing at itself in disgust. There is no door to this prison, unless death is a door. There is no destroying the prison, or the demon without killing the child, for we are one. Indivisible.

If the prison had been a well defended castle, keeping out, not locking in.

If the demon had been allowed to roar at enemies beyond the gate.

If the child had felt safe to cry.

Other stories were certainly possible, once. Working from within, trapped in the cramped, demonic lost child darkness, how do we tell a new story? A grown up fairy tale with a wiser outcome. Can we tell a new life? We wait. Child, demon, prison… person.


Book Hipster

I didn’t set out consciously to be a book hipster. I started out as an omnivore, cheerfully reading anything that I could get my hands on. Some years ago I started noticing a thing – namely that bookshops made me feel depressed. The TV and movie tie ins, the ghost written celebrity fluff on the front tables, the way in the speculative sections everything looked like everything else… and then the internet and ebooks came along (it was a long time ago!)and I was saved.

I don’t buy or read much from the big publishing houses any more. They just aren’t putting out material that interests me, for the greater part. Instead, I pick up books from small publishers, and self-publishers, and that’s been a joy. I have the advantage of being a reviewer known for doing this, so the books I want quite often come and find me.

Mainstream publishing is a mess, because the decisions are driven by the desire for profit, not the desire for good books. Smaller houses and self publishers can of course be trying to do the same thing, but many aren’t – there’s not much scope for wealth at that scale, you may as well write what you love.

I want to be surprised by books, not locked into a familiar formula. It’s really that simple. When publishing is run by the accountants and the marketing department, you mostly get things that are already famous (and therefore familiar) or you get things that are just like things you already know about. It’s the exact opposite of what I want.

This year I decided to start identifying as a book hipster. I was in a conversation at an arts centre, and someone asked me who I read. I paused, and then I said ‘you won’t have heard of any of them’ and there was really only one way to go after that. Unlike other hipsters, I’m prepared to get excited if more people find the things I’m into. Also, I figure I can probably annoy the other sort of hipsters while I’m at it, which is bound to be fun.