Love, the Verb

Yesterday, after spending the preceding waking hours running in furious circles and generally comporting myself like a week’s worth of bad news, my friend called.

We’d scheduled a video chat (the vomitous de rigueur of current social interaction) and, armed with a glass of cava, I sat down, propped my feet on an adjacent chair and tried to think happy thoughts.

Within a minute or two of saying hello we were cackling about something.

That’s the first time I laughed today.

A guilt-breaker washed over me. Somehow, I’d found something to share a genuine laugh about with a friend while my partner had heard nothing but bitching all day.

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Photo by Alfonso Scarpa on Unsplash

Love and courtesy

Once, apropos who knows what, a colleague said that one’s family is ‘obviously’ easy to get on with. I argued then, and argue now, that however much and sincerely we love someone, intimacy and proximity often cause carelessness.

I choose, when engaging with friends, to not sulk and storm. My time focused on them is brief so, even on bad days, I can muster the energy to be a slightly better self.

This isn’t falseness so much as simple courtesy. Other people have feelings too, and limited time, and worries. It is unkind to fill up their head space, which is surely every bit as overcrowded and precarious-feeling as mine, with solopsistic whinging.

But when you’re with someone round the clock, for the indefinite, it is easy to feel like every moment doesn’t count. Like, it’s okay to be grumpy and skip showering because he’s going to be here tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day).

Slipping into this perilous relaxation happens when we treat love as a noun. I love him, he loves me, ergo I can do what I like.

Fair is fair

The trouble is reconciling my bellyaching inner child with the duties of an adult relationship. I’m an individual, entitled to feel and express my feelings. Granted.
My partner is also entitled to not live with a whiffy harpy.

Excuse me while I shove a tea-towel in the gob of the me, me, me voice in my head.

It is only right to acknowledge that my rights end when they being to infringe on someone else’s. Yes, I have every right to curse, moan and carp; but when my crappy mood blackens the air for both of us, I’ve overstepped.

Basic courtesies like this are what allow us to maintain friendships and relationships. Letting ourselves act and react unchecked is what leads to breakups, meltdowns and guest spots on Jerry Springer (if that’s even still a thing).

Get to work, love

Making it work, in real time, means doing love not just giving ourselves credit for feeling it. Love has to be a verb, or it risks losing any real meaning.

Love, the verb, is making the effort to find something funny or pleasant to talk about, it’s not complaining constantly, it’s taking a shower and remember to put on deodorant, it’s shutting up for a minute and listening, it’s keeping some of the more outrageous paranoid thoughts to yourself, it’s saying ‘we’ll be okay’ even if that seems like a stretch.

Ursula LeGuin, the (Oregonian!) stalwart of goodness, sanity and fine prose, said:

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a thing that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

Of late, my way of relating has been sub-optimal, to put it mildly. Which is, and this I must remember, okay. Only Pollyanna or a complete ditz believes that long-term confinement, financial precarity and uncertainty bring out the best in people.

It can’t be all or nothing anymore though. I can’t be one of those positivity freaks (and would hate myself more if I tried) but that isn’t licence to be unbearable.

For now, I’ll do my best in the circumstances and try to keep faith with love, the verb.

Running to nowhere

Since I was 12 or so, running has been my talisman against self-destruction. It hasn’t kept me slim (that was an early-20s drug cocktail followed by vegetarianism) or particularly fit — after more than 25 years of running regularly I still take an hour to run a 10K — but it kept me functional, if not always happy.

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Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

The worst of this godforsaken lockdown is not even being allowed out to exercise. The minor saving grace is we have a driveway, or mini-camino, that is the only part of the property currently free of knee- to hip-high grass.

After five or so days of trying to get a buzz off yoga I started jogging in the driveway.

It is about 75 metres long, uneven, inconsistently cambered and comprised of a variety of surfaces. Beyond the concrete slab in front of the house is a spot of mud from where we turn the car round. This gathers itself into a mossy, grassy hump I cover in two strides before settling into the right-hand tyre track.

The driveway subsides going away from the house till it reaches the j-bend up to the paved road. About halfway down, at the end of a crumbling, overgrown stone wall, a walnut tree is putting out leaves. They are still tightly furled, waiting, presumably, for some solar encouragement before showing face.

Chris has tramped along the verge with our trusty hand-mower, keeping the grass reasonably lawnish for about 50 metres. Beyond the close-cut strip is an explosion of waist-high weeds. There is dandelion and stinging nettle in there, but mostly some skinny chancer with reddish seed pods. No idea what it is.

Romeo, the tiger-ish looking one of our twin boy cats, usually stakes out a spot at the end of the driveway during my run. Yesterday, he sat at attention, perfectly immobile, for about 15 minutes, staring at something I couldn’t see. He may be a Zen master.

I am not.

Today’s news was that Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s improbably debonair, well-spoken and (I believe, as of today) utterly useless, mashed-potato-brained president has threatened/requested an extension of the state of emergency until 10 May.

While I’m rarely carefree I am also not often apoplectic. Continuous low-level outrage and cynicism seems to inoculate me against the wilder mood swings.

Hearing we are going to be trapped in a rain-sodden ice box of a house, in a place neither of us have any love or affinity, for makes me want to put my fist through a wall.

Literally.

As I write, my chest feels like it is self-compressing. If it weren’t for Chris napping upstairs and the cats (Teddy in particular is distressed by loud noises) I would scream.

Running is supposed to help when I feel like this. Watching my footfall, adjusting my posture, picking up my knees, monitoring my breathing, these things can help.

So I run, counting out the laps: 2.5, 3… 5… 10… 14.5… 23…

On odd-numbered laps I run faster, picking my way between extrusions of natural rock — pinkish, glimmering with tiny crystals — and detritus: rubber piping, smashed tiles, bin liners, odd bits of plastic embedded in the hard earth. Uncut hair flops damp against my forehead. My left Achilles tendon twinges a warning.

Near the end of the drive, on the right (as you face the house) is a bare tree with small white flowers. Must check with my sister later, she’s the garden wizard.

Add that to the post-release list: plant a garden. Be ready,  when (not if) this shit comes raining down next. Dig potatoes and pluck herbs.

The permanent mist thickens and moves purposefully. Rain, now, really.

I jog/wheel/sprint/job/wheel through the 40s without shedding the desire to inflict damage on something. I’m going to need a lot of therapy, which I can’t afford.

And the reasons I can’t afford therapy are part of the reasons I’m at risk of melting into a lava pit of rage and self-loathing without it. None of which can be addressed now, or in a week, month, or perhaps a year.

That’s the kicker, as I turn through 47… 49… 52… Nobody knows when, or how, this ends. (I’ll take ‘bang’, if that’s an option.)

 

 

 

Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Routine benefits

One of the many things repeated moves have taught me about myself is that I need routine like bees need flowers. This flies in the face of the cherished self-perception that I am fearless, free, and endlessly flexible.

My youthful fantasy was to fit everything I owned in a backpack and earn a living with a typewriter (yep, it’s been that long).

To an astonishing extent, I managed it – at least for periods of time. This let me kid myself into thinking my spirit is free.

Trekking across the country, life crammed in a rented van, again disabused me of this wishful thought. That I mourn its loss suggests a reckoning. Why is routine a dirty word? What is freedom, really?

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Photo by Sorin Sîrbu on Unsplash

When routine is wrong

My mental resistance to routine – despite the fact it is essential for my mental health and productivity – springs from the fear of being trapped.

Growing up with an authoritarian father and Evangelical mother, my ability to make decisions based on my own wants and needs was basically zero. They told me what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to believe, with hellfire and damnation to come if I disobeyed.

Physical, intellectual and emotional oppression tainted my understanding of routine. Instead of seeing it as positive and reassuring, I thought it was prison.

Real-life routine

As an adult, I’ve never quite lost my fear of it. Yet, despite a peripatetic life and work-style, routine finds me. When I was writing a book and had no outside obligations, I woke, drank coffee, ran, showered, worked, ate, slept at the same times every day. For the past nine months, I left the house at exactly 15:55, Monday to Thursday, to walk to work.

Writing, eating, yoga, walks with the cats, happened as if to a factory clock. Being displaced from them feels like be yanked from a deep salt current onto baking sand.

The geographic change has pushed sunset back an hour, the cats are disorientated; I don’t yet have the structure of out-of-home work. Worse, there is a mountain of one-off tasks: hoovering, mopping, washing, unpacking and packing. Rattled, my brain is creaking along in fits and starts, adding anxiety to the general feeling of unsettledness.

Lacing this is my stubborn, though discredited, notion that I should be able to carry on as if nothing happened. To my dream self, moving a thousand kilometres would be as easy as crossing the street.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Routine = daily ritual

Routine carries connotations of repetition, boredom, drudgery, lack of imagination. Ritual, on the other hand, has overtones of ceremony and celebration. When we think of rituals we picture weddings, christenings, funerals (even sombre rituals are elegant).

Part of readjusting my attitude towards routine is giving it a proper title: daily ritual.

Waking up, feeding the cats, boiling water for coffee are small, valuable rituals. Drinking coffee from our matched mugs (mine’s the chipped one) while the cats poke around the yard, also ritual.

The order of work, chores, movement, even grocery shopping, can all be appreciated as a part of the ongoing ritual of sustaining a meaningful, productive, satisfying life. That’s no small thing, when you grow up with no concept of what that kind of life looks like.

Routine can make us part of something bigger

Routine helps us create a collective life, too. Work, education, society and politics couldn’t function with the rhythm of ritual. That’s not to say existing patterns are sacrosanct – there are many routines we would be right to change – but the move would have to be in the direction of a better routine, not chaos.

“You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing,” wrote the Victorian critic John Ruskin. “It is, on the whole… dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must, or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes.”

He continues: “A butterfly is much more free than a bee; but you honour the bee more, just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society.”

Being “fit… for orderly function” isn’t just a social benefit, it is a personal good. Human beings need community and a sense of purpose. Positive routines nourish the relationships and responsibilities that make for a rewarding life.

 

 

Uprooted

Life in motion

My husband and I just moved house. Actually, moved to a house across the country, with our three cats and a motley assortment of possessions in a hired camper van.

Haphazard, yes, but not the worst of my moves. That would be the time I had to drag my possessions across town in a suitcase because I didn’t have a car; or the time I had to leave my cat with my ex-boyfriend because I was moving across the Atlantic.

This move was anticipated and embraced.

Until it happened.

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My road warriors

Feeling the fear

No single thing triggered the panic. It is the house’s accumulation of dust, spiders, cobwebs; the discarded shoes in cupboards and underwear jammed beneath beds. It is lukewarm water, cold floors and incessant rain.

Panic started in my belly, rose, rolled around. For my husband’s (and cats’) sake I’m trying to quell it but the effort is short-circuiting my brain. I can’t understand simple statements, nor follow directions.

It took all my willpower to not utter the phrase “I want to go home” — that and the knowledge that I can’t. Not after quitting my job, ending our lease, and spending all our money to move here.

Get up, or give in

Right now, I want nothing more than to curl in a ball and weep. I want to tell someone, anyone: “I’ve made a mistake, please let me go back.”

But of course, that’s not an option. Chris is already back at work. The cats are doing their best to acclimate. It’s still raining.

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Three’s company

I’m scared. But somehow, I have to keep moving. 

Ibiza Noir on Kindle

My novel Ibiza Noir is now available on Kindle.

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Amazon.com: http://amzn.to/2CRdv1q or on Amazon.co.ukhttp://amzn.to/2FbRQP4

Sex, drugs, greed and loneliness draw three strangers into a perilous alliance beneath the pulsing strobe lights of an Ibiza nightclub. Lou, Sally and Calum are thrown together as their private sorrows and deep longings pull them into the chaotic hedonism of the world’s most famous party island. Their lives entwine in the white heat of summer as they chase increasingly elusive dreams. Lou craves a home and falls in love with Sally’s boss, Vivienne, the duplicitous coke-addicted owner of Moulin Noir nightclub. Sally will do anything for money and freedom, and watches in horror as Vivienne runs Noir to ruin. Disenchanted journalist Calum wades into the maelstrom in search of a career-making story, but finds himself falling for Sally’s brittle beauty. When a terrible event occurs they each have to decide what to rescue, what to leave, and who they want to be.

To be continued…

 

This is what the Odyssey means

As we bid farewell to 2017 I’d like to share a favourite poem: ‘Trouble’ by Jack Gilbert,  and some snapshots.

Trouble | Jack Gilbert

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

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Holiday Reading 2017

Having been bludgeoned with Christianity from infancy, I’m over the away-in-a-manger stuff. Books, though, are one aspect of childhood Christmas I revisit with joy.

Christmas was prime new book time. The rest of the year my siblings and I got what books our parents could afford, which is to say, we went to the library. December 25th was one of the rare occasions we could count on one or two new volumes for our personal collection.

This year, my holiday reading echoes the old pattern. One library book (digital now), one Kindle purchase, and one old-fashioned paperback from a charity shop in Crouch End.

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale came courtesy of the library. I don’t get Atwood aesthetically in the same way I don’t get, say, Thomas Wolfe or D.H. Lawrence. Her politics are admirable though. Astute women are writing and talking about The Handmaid’s Tale so it seemed like something I should have a first-hand opinion on.

Which (not that you asked) is that the novel puts Atwood perilously close to being the Ayn Rand of the left. Admirable politics, yes. But cardboard characters prodded around a stage so ripe with Symbolism that I wanted the whole damn wooden set-up to burn. I see now why it is being hailed as visionary: it’s dumb enough that even people who didn’t see Trump coming can grasp the Badness of the Bad Things that happen in it.

What’s disappointing is that Atwood can be a fine writer. (I realise, writing these words, that all hell would break loose if anyone read this blog. She has won a thousand awards and sold a million novels. Who the hell am I to criticise? Just a reader.) Her novel Cat’s Eye is rich and absorbing. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure bully pulpit blather, though. She (a woman of intelligence) didn’t trust her readers with anything subtler than a sermon.

dark is risingTo my delight, Susan Cooper didn’t make the same mistake in The Dark is Rising. Full confession, I’d never heard of it till reading a Guardian column that sang its praise. Normally, I avoid fantasy and children’s books in equal measure, but sometimes it’s good to bend the rules. The Dark is Rising reminds me of many of the books I loved as a kid: The Lord of the Rings, The Hounds of the Morrigan, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is pastoral, charming, and very very English. I blazed through it.

That treat consumed, I picked up Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This is maybe the third copy I’ve owned. It is one of those books I buy, give away, then buy again. I started with the final story in the slim Penguin Modern Classics paperback, “A Christmas Memory”. Capote’s evocative account of his boyhood Christmas made me weep, even though I know the ending. IMG_20171226_182805

Then I flipped back to the beginning and reread Breakfast at Tiffany’s, marveling at his use of language, description, and the curious fact that leggy, stuttering Mag Wildwood is given the full name Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood. In 1958, when the book was published, Thatcher was an up-and-coming Tory politician. A Capote in-joke?

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the perfect starter for a Flannery O’Connor short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The eponymous opening story is deliciously agonising. O’Connor’s genius is that she doesn’t tell you anything. She just lines words up on the page and you hurry along, captivated by their perfect inscrutable order, until you crash face first into the gruesome conclusion.

O’Connor is the anti-Atwood. Nothing in her writing suggests she cared if her readers got it. She wrote. I know which I prefer.

What did you read over the holidays? Share in the comments. 

 

 

Elements of Storytelling 12: Ethics

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 12: Ethics

Great storytellers hook their audience with a clear ethos, worldview, or proposition.

Case study: Kat Lister

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What it is:

Freelance journalist Kat Lister has carved a successful career writing for publications including Marie Clare, The Telegraph, Huff Post, InStyle, Vice, and Broadly by championing the ever-contentious cause of women’s equality.

Why it matters:

Journalists have flirted with starvation since at least 1891 (the year George Gissing published New Grub Street*). Modern multimedia journalism is unapologetically fuelled by celebrity and sensation. To survive journalists must be inimitable. Lister nails it. Everything she writes, from investigative pieces on Syria, to reportage on young Muslims, to think pieces on Brexit, “glass cliffs” and IVF is examined through lens of her feminism. Lister’s cohesive, provocative ethical stance, plus ferociously good writing, whets editors’ appetites, and has prompted 40K shares and 140K Facebook Likes (and counting).

In her own words:

I write about women and culture

Read more / Follow @Madame_George on Twitter

Practice: “Put yourself at the center [of your stories], you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” ~ Anne Lamott

Remember: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ― Elie Wiesel

*Free on Kindle: Amazon.com  and Amazon.co.uk

Elements of Storytelling 10: Magic

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 10: Magic

Every great story needs a touch of magic: a perfectly conjured sentence or feat of illusion.

Case study: Comedy & Magic Society

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What it is:

Four hard-working professional magicians: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Woods. Together they have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each, if modesty allowed, could claim to be one of the world’s finest prestidigitators.

Why it matters:

My acquaintance with Comedy Magic Society began when Mark Phillips commissioned me to write a profile of the quartet. Interviewing and writing about the four magicians was an eye-opener. Dexterity is the smallest fraction of illusion, it turns out. The real magic lies in storytelling.

Magic relies on hooking the audience into a narrative. The story distracts then, holding their attention while the magician does his work. A great magician can tell stories to anyone: Mark uses magic as a tool to help corporate clients communicate and sell; Brian honed his skills doing close-up tricks for restaurant patrons; Bob is a former circus clown who perfected the art of magic bartending; and Barry educates and entertains kids in schools and hospitals.

In their own words:

Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realises it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.” Read more…

Practice: To retain all the “juice” of being in the moment, a writer needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat – to use sleight of hand that moves the reader from a second-hand recounting to feeling present in the scene.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is shot, for instance, Nick Carroway, his narrator, is off-stage. Yet he allows Nick to surmise not merely what happened, but also what Gatsby must have felt during those last few minutes of life:

No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock – until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.

via Writer’s Circle Workshops

Remember: “We are all magicians. What we see will never coincide with absolute reality. As a result, the human brain must make a narrative.” ~ Frederick Reiken