Reverb day 15: gems

“Watch the sunrise at least once a year, put a lot of marshmallows in your hot chocolate, lie on your back and look at the stars, never buy a coffee table you can’t put your feet on, never pass up a chance to jump on a trampoline, don’t overlook life’s small joys while searching for the big ones.”

What small pleasures gave you moments of intense joy in 2015? 

What more could you cultivate in 2016?

Being at tree-top level

My desk is on the fourth floor of a London office: just at the right height to look out into the intense green canopy of the plane trees.

Baths after long walks

Nothing so delicious.

Cygnets riding on their parents’ backs

I shall walk beside the Cam in the spring.

Paddling

Brighton is not my favourite beach – too stony – but one takes one’s seaside where one can find it, and divesting myself of my tights to go paddling before a conference in October was, oddly enough, exactly the right thing to do.

Tiny square of ginger cheesecake

Whoever thought of serving it in pieces one inch square is a genius; it’s perfect.

Making the Christmas cake

Dark brown soft sugar. Black treacle. Nutmeg.

Opening a treasure box of beads

Sapphires! (Real sapphires!) Garnets! Bloodstone! Deep red glass stars! So many beautiful things.

Swinging at King’s Cross (no, not like that…)

If you go out of the rear entrance of King’s Cross station, there’s a huge thing like a birdcage. It has a swing, and it’s a proper adult-sized swing, and you can swing on it without worrying what the passers-by are thinking, because it’s London and they’re either not looking or pretending they’re not.

Drink to me only with thine eyes

I’ve been teaching myself to play the piano, and I’m just getting to tunes that I know and want to play. I am fortunate enough to have such a lovely piano that it sounds absolutely fantastic.

Shooting star on Christmas Eve

After midnight mass, so I suppose it was Christmas morning, really.

Watering my feet

Hot summer days, achey feet: in the bath with the shower head, or outside with a watering can.

Next year?

Notice things. That’s all there is to it.

Reverb day 14: growing up

You wake up and the light through the window seems different, the air carries a chill or maybe a hint of warmer days.

What has changed? You? The world?

It can be a change that happened this past year or one you’re looking toward in the time ahead. It can be a broad sweep obvious to all or a more subtle shift that only you know about.

Tell us about transformation. 

This year my birthday present to myself was two handbags. Now I’m thirty, you see, I thought I ought to have a grown-up handbag, and carrying a black handbag while wearing brown shoes, or vice versa, is a thing that I don’t do without very good cause.

Grown up. That’s what I’ve done this year.

I’m not sure that you could tell by looking at me. My physical appearance hasn’t changed much this year; I’m still wearing my short skirts and long earrings; my hair has a few more white strands, perhaps, but it’s still short and sharp.

Could you tell by talking to me? Perhaps. Perhaps I seem more confident, or more opinionated. Perhaps I seem quieter. Perhaps you would notice that I wasn’t talking to you so much as I used to. I’ve become better at respecting my own need for solitude. I’m learning the rituals of small talk, but at the same time I’m learning how to escape it.

And perhaps I haven’t really changed at all; I’ve just become more myself. I find myself having a much clearer idea of what I want from life these days; I find myself beginning to make choices based on my own inclinations rather than by picking some externally decided virtue (‘the cheapest’… ‘the most ethical’… ‘the one I haven’t tried, because I am Meant to be trying new things’… of course, sometimes I remember that I am Meant to be Doing What I Feel Like and then come unstuck, but it’s all practice). I’ve been enjoying myself. I designated this year a year of fun, and I have had fun. I find myself making my own plans and acting on them. I find myself recognising my low days as atypical and remembering that my depression does not define me.

I feel less awkward. I feel less apologetic. I feel braver.

I’ve grown up. I like it.

Reverb day 13: dogs and ducks

What are you going to shake off with fierceness before you enter the new year?

I’m thinking about dogs clambering out of the water onto the river bank, and then shaking themselves so vigourously as to soak the surrounding metre or so of ground. That isn’t quite what I need: the dog remains fairly wet. I’m thinking about ducks and swans, clambering out of the river with the water running off their feathers.

I am divesting myself of other people’s expectations. I am ceasing to conform to other people’s pictures of me. Whether it’s the friend who wants the best for me and is convinced that I could get it right now if I only put a little more effort in, or the casual acquaintance who adds up ‘goes to church’ and ‘doesn’t talk much’ and gets ‘disapproves of everything’, I return all those assumptions to their rightful owners, in the same way that I’m giving up feeling guilty about sending presents that I didn’t ask for and don’t like to the charity shop. I’m giving up contorting myself and apologising for myself and trying to please people.

I am shaking off ought to and really should. I’m doing things as I notice them or feel like doing them. I’m giving up pushing myself. It’s a useful skill, but I know how to do it when I really need to, and, oddly enough, things seem to get done one way or another without my reducing myself to a wibbling wreck over the question.

I’m shaking off the things that aren’t mine, and perhaps next year I’ll find that I don’t need to shake; they’ll just be running off my feathers.

Reverb day 12: desired and feared

Can you think of an instance in the past year where you have been successful at making fear useful? 

What fears do you hold about the year ahead? And how could you use the energy of those fears in a different way?

This year has been remarkably free of fear. This has been the first full year where my partner and I have both lived under the same roof and had full-time, permanent jobs. I’ve been coming to understand that life doesn’t necessarily have to be lived in a state of fearful uncertainty.

Which is not to say that it has been entirely free of fear. Most of my fears have been niggly and silly. “Yes, but did I lock the front door? Did I turn the gas off? What will I come home to tomorrow?” I suppose that, the more this happens, the more likely I will be to pay attention when I’m turning off the cooker and locking the front door, and not need to turn back half way down the road.

Next year? I can think of at least three big, potentially terrifying things that might happen, ranging from ‘hmm, maybe’ to ‘almost certain’. These are three things that I want to happen, things that I am putting deliberate effort into effecting. None the less, they are scary: they’re big life changes; they’ll have significant effects on the way I think of myself; they could all go horribly wrong.

How to use the fear that comes with them? I think that in each of these cases the fear is a sort of background acknowledgement of how big they really are. The fear is a signifier of their importance. I think that if I acknowledge how huge they are, and acknowledge the fact that actually I really am quite scared of [X], [Y] and [Z], even though I want them to happen to much, because I want them to happen so much, I won’t need to do anything to the fear; it will transform itself into something delicious and exciting.

 

Reverb day 11: salvaging treasure

Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. And I could not agree more. Our stories are our own but, in sharing them, they become universal. And timeless.

What stories touched you this year? Which stories of your own are you glad you shared?

A couple of nights ago I watched the raising of the Mary Rose. Not the actual event – that happened three years before I was born – but the television footage of the salvage operation. It was one of those programmes that the BBC does so very well, digging up archive footage and showing what had gone before and what came after.

It’s a hell of a story. The Mary Rose went down with everything she had on board, and almost all hands. The mud at the bottom of the Solent preserved the wreck remarkably well. The archaeologists brought up everything that they could find. Then they brought up the hull, and they took her back into harbour in Portsmouth. I had a tear in my eye, I will admit. Mostly because of that lovely proud ship coming home (I’m horribly sentimental about ships, and not just ships – buses, cars, bicycles, too), but also for of the archaeologists who had spent their whole careers on this one magnificent project, who appeared in the early clips as tousle-haired students in the seventies, and in the later one as respectable talking heads, who had never run out of things to find out.

I told stories. I told the story of how my parents separated when I was in my mid-teens, and how it was horrible at the time but how much better it is now. I told the story of how, when I was twenty, I was genuinely shocked to see my future parents-in-law holding hands in public, because I didn’t know that other people’s parents liked each other enough to do that. I think it helped. I hope so.

I kept on telling the story that I’ve been telling for years. The end is in sight for this instalment. Speak Its Name is nearly done. I’m waiting on some feedback before I can tidy up the last little bits and send it out. Then it will be done, and off my conscience. Still, I can’t quite shake the conviction that it’s really a story about truth, and honesty, and integrity; and goodness knows there’ll always be more of that story to tell.

Reverb day 10: litany

When we heal our spirits the ripples are felt from the highest branches to the deepest roots of our family trees.

What radical act of love or non-conformity did you embrace this year?

I wonder how many thousands of people can recite Philip Larkin’s This be the verse from memory, people who wouldn’t necessarily describe their childhoods as awful, who are fully aware that their parents were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances, but who recognise the unforgiving truth.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,/ They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had,/ And add some extra, just for you.

I don’t agree with his conclusion, but I can’t fault his observation. This seems to be the way things happen. We are the sum of our ancestors’ assumptions, convictions, hang-ups and foibles. And then we add some more of our own. It deepens like a coastal shelf.

I’m less pessimistic. I think it’s possible to interrupt the patterns, to throw away the scripts, and watch the coastal shelf dissolve, one layer at a time. Maybe we don’t get very far through it in this generation. Oh, but it’s worth trying. I think it’s possible to make things incrementally better, starting where I am, with the material I have.

I almost answered this question a couple of days ago, and so I’m just going to expand on that, and copy in a couple of pages from my diary, from May this year.

I have told myself that it doesn’t matter that I am bisexual when actually it is very important.

I have thought in terms of ‘either’/’or’ and suppressed ‘both’/’and’.

I have had the opportunity to come out as bisexual and not taken it, many times.

I have preached the glory of God’s infinite, unconditional, love, to all LGBT people except myself.

I have told myself that I am only OK so long as I act straight.

I have hidden behind a heterosexual relationship and have been ashamed of my true self.

I have behaved as if only part of myself were acceptable.

I refused to act on hints from myself. I ignored clues. I was afraid to entertain the possibility.

I thought it must be all about the sex and ignored everything that wasn’t.

I have shut myself in a container in which there isn’t room for all of myself.

I have made myself feel grateful for being het-married and have let myself feel guilty about not having to deal with the crap LG people have to deal with.

I have wished to be monosexual and have let myself think that at least that would have been easier.

I have worried and worried that I’m making it all up and have minimised every manifestation out of fear and false modesty.

I have confined myself to the Rules.

I have allowed myself to be limited to other people’s expectations.

I have made unconditional acceptance conditional.

I have denied my true nature.

I did not come out to myself until there was no way to decently act upon it.

I have told myself that celibacy or heterosexual marriage are the only valid expressions of a bisexual identity.

I have stunted my own growth and development by refusing to allow for the possibility that I might be bisexual.

I have wondered in my turn whether my bisexual brothers and sisters might be making it up.

I have limited myself to the theoretical.

 

I am ashamed. I would not have treated another person the way that I have treated myself. I bristle at the slightest implication that I might.

 

I ask for forgiveness.

I ask for forgiveness of myself, for God’s forgiveness is granted already.

I ask forgiveness from my sad, suppressed, denied, self; from the self that was never allowed an opportunity to think that it might be both until the choice was made and irrevocable.

I ask for forgiveness from the one who might have made a different choice, had she been allowed to know of that choice’s existence.

I ask for forgiveness from the one who made the choice, and always knew that there was more to it than that.

 

I ask to see my whole self.

I ask to be reintegrated.

I ask to receive everyone I am and have been and might have been and could yet be.

I ask to be myself.

 

Reverb day 9: recipe

What if you had to give someone a recipe for how to make a YOU?

What major ingredients would be required? What method would you recommend?

How would your je ne sais quoi be recreated?

Ripen ingredients outdoors.

Sweet accuracy. Stubborn integrity. Airy idealism. A hefty slosh of irony to counter it. A soupçon of acid. A pinch of diffidence.

A raising agent, whose scientific name is perhaps best translated as ‘Stopping/noticing/turning aside’.

Some curdling seems to be inevitable, but can be dispersed with proper attention.

Leave to prove in a quiet spot. Avoid agitation and sudden changes.

A round tin. This is important. When you look carefully, it turns out to be a spiral.

The longer the cooking, the better balanced the result.

Attempt to remove the chip from the shoulder.

Keep experimenting.

Reverb day 8: strivings and blessings

The Chapel, Little London
The Chapel, Little London: an unexpected blessing thoroughly deserved

While alchemy is the active process of creating something of value, serendipity is the passive path to finding an unexpected treasure.

Looking back through 2015, what did you diligently try to create?

What great thing did you just happen to find?

I am usually very wary of the ‘pulled myself up by my bootstraps’ school of thought. I know damn well that I’m very fortunate, very blessed, that good things are showered upon me a long way out of proportion to my own deserving or hard work.

Having said that, I do feel that I’ve put a lot of work in this year, and I can trace most of the things with which I’m most pleased back to months or years of sustained effort. Everything I talked about yesterday, for a start. And plenty of more tangible achievements, too. For example: in September I wandered into a charity shop in Bury St Edmunds and bought a copy of Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Course. I’m up to page 36 now, and can play Drink to me only with thine eyes more or less accurately; I’m getting on far better with teaching myself than I’d have believed possible. And that’s partly because of hard work between September and here, and partly because of hard work going back to when I was 8 and started cello lessons.

And having said that, I can think of at least a few wonderful things that just happened. Discovering Rhiannon Giddens at Cambridge Folk Festival. An experience that I can perhaps best describe by saying that it was like finding out that a friend was a long-lost brother. There are the things I found by keeping my eyes open: the swing in the giant birdcage outside King’s Cross station, the swan giving her cygnets a ride down the Cam on her back. As recently as yesterday, walking home along the river bank, seeing a succession of anglers with their rods and their boxes and there, between two of them, a heron, watching and waiting for the fish, closer than I’d ever seen one before.

Sometimes it’s been a combination of the two: an exquisite confection of a blessing on top of the cake of effort. I’m thinking now of the first day of my birthday walk. I’d gone nineteen miles, crossed the county boundary from Berkshire into Hampshire. My rucksack wasn’t quite adjusted properly, and my knee was protesting ever louder, and I got lost in the world’s most confusing field, and… I’m going to write all this up properly, but let me just say for the moment that it was not a good day.

I was hot, cross, exhausted and in pain by the time I reached my accommodation for the night, The Chapel at Little London. I can’t begin to put into words the welcome I received there. I knew that my hostess was going to cook me a meal; I didn’t realise that it would be three delicious courses. I can’t explain to someone who hasn’t done a long distance walk how wonderful it is to have somebody take your clothes away and wash them for you. I needn’t, perhaps, say how very comforting is a capacious sofa and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or how blissful it is to lay down one’s exhausted body between cool white sheets.

And this, perhaps, typifies all the treasure of 2015: I’d walked nineteen miles, and I deserved that stay; but I know all the same that I was so very fortunate for it to have happened to me the way it did. Things can be even better than we imagine.

Reverb day 7: knowing myself

In her seminal book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott offers the observation: “The evidence is in, and you are the verdict.”

Regardless of where you live in this crazy beautiful world, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s been a BIG year.

Today, I want to acknowledge that you are here and I am here and we are here.

We’re just… HERE.

That feels like a BIG DEAL.

And, that being said, I invite you to reflect on all that this evinces. What are you the verdict of?

Thirty years. Thirty years, four months, and a few days I’ve been on this planet now. And yes, this one has been a big year.

I’ve written a book! I’ve taken ownership of the book to the extent that I’m prepared to put it out into the world under my own name and propulsion. I’ve let go of the need for other people’s approval; I’ve given up on waiting for other people to give me permission.

After several years of thinking that I was pretty much OK with my sexuality, I’ve found a whole lot more snarls, and have disentangled them.

I’ve let go of the idea that I ought to have always known, and the guilt that went with it. I’ve met other people who didn’t always know, who didn’t know for far longer than me. Together, we’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps it’s not our fault for not knowing; it’s just a different story from the one that the rest of the world expects. We’re going to claim our own identities anyway, damn it.

Relatedly, I’ve stopped feeling guilty about being in a heterosexual relationship while claiming my queer identity. And I’ve stopped apologising for the people who disgrace my religion.

I worried a lot about what other people were thinking about who I was, about why they kept apologising for swearing in front of me, and couldn’t work out why it upset me so much. Then it occurred to me that I was terrified that I actually would turn out to be that person: the prissy, mealy-mouthed killjoy who was far more offended by a ‘fuck’ or a ‘shit’ than by, you know, dishonesty, untruth, cruelty – the things that matter.

I examined myself through this lens and found that, while I really wasn’t bothered by swearing, I’d done a pretty thorough job of suppressing the parts of myself that didn’t seem respectable. Keeping quiet, trying not to take up space, and, for heaven’s sake, if I had to insist on being bisexual, then not doing it where it might be getting in the way of people with real problems.

It was as if, every time I went to church, I left half of myself outside the door. There’s a line in one of the Collects: ‘forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid…’ That’s how it felt; except it turned out that very few of those things turned out to need forgiving. What really needed forgiveness was the fear, which had for years stopped me looking at myself properly, had stopped me accepting myself.

The other line that felt extremely relevant was from 1 Corinthians 13:

‘Then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.’

The implication of this verse only dawned on me a few months ago: that nobody could possibly expect us to know ourselves fully now; that there is always going to be more to find out. That I could stop feeling guilty for not having always known, and that I could trust that, some day, I would.

Today, is of course, not that day. Today I’m slightly closer to St Paul’s unspecified ‘then’ than I was this time last year, but there, of course, is a very long way to go.

All the same, I’m here. And here seems like a very good place to be, for now.

Reverb day 6: unravelling old tales

Sign over the door

As each year progresses, we unknowingly gather many thoughts, beliefs, and patterns to us. In fact, what we are carrying may have been passed down to us from previous generations.

Looking at the thoughts and patterns that may be holding you back from living the life you want, trace back through the generations of your family and see if your beliefs originated generations ago.

In 2016, how can you bring healing to these patterns of thought that are holding you back?

Back in the day, the Jowitts were in wool up in Yorkshire. When they started out in wool, they were Quakers; they converted to the Church of England somewhere in the mid nineteenth century, but they retained a lot of that stubborn integrity that one associates with the Society of Friends.

In the First World War, there was a high demand for wool; there was an army to clothe. The chairman of the board, who would have been one of my distant cousins, felt extremely guilty about making a profit out of war. At the end of it he worked out what the firm had made from it and wrote a cheque for that sum to the Russian government, having judged that the Russian people had suffered most. Fortunately for the survival of the family business, there was nobody to countersign the cheque.

I smiled when I read that; although my branch of the family had given up and gone south by that time it is very similar to what I’d have been tempted to do in that position, and I, too, might have needed circumstances to intervene to prevent me placing principle over practicality.

This doesn’t answer the question at all. I do occasionally worry that I’m Hopelessly Idealistic and Ought To Live In The Real World, but I’d rather hang on to this trait than otherwise.

Let’s approach it from the other side. Let’s list a few unhelpful assumptions and see where they came from. Some of these are current; some are more or less dissolved, but occasionally pop up to the surface when I’m particularly distressed or fatigued.

  1. I must never look stupid or foolish.
  2. My duty is to ensure that my own preferences always give way to others’.
  3. Anything short of perfection is insufficient.
  4. Some parts of my identity are less presentable than others, and I ought to suppress them.
  5. It is my job to keep things going.
  6. One must always buy the cheapest option.

The first, perhaps, comes from my maternal grandfather, via my mother; we are long on brains and short on money. And if our intellect is all we have, then that must never let us down. The last is also only a couple of generations old. The rest I’m inclined to blame more on Biblical literalism (and similar approaches to faith), Improving Fiction for young girls, and the way that women have been socialised over generations at large, rather than in my family in particular.

And really, when it comes to it, I’m not overly concerned with where these ideas come from. Oh, it’s interesting, when I catch myself saying something like, ‘You see, I shouldn’t get these things, because I just wreck them,’ and realise that it isn’t my voice at all, but my strategy for dealing with it is exactly the same as if it were a more general cultural story.

Observe. Question. Discuss. Interrogate. Assume it ain’t necessarily so, and see if there’s a different way to approach the problem. Rinse. Repeat as necessary.