April Moon day 5: between two covers, anything is possible

One of my greatest sources of inspiration has always been books.

A conventional answer, but none the less true. I’ve always had more books than I could ever possibly read, and I like it that way. When I was a child, I was blessed with a superabundance of books. A school in the area closed down when I was four, and my parents, looking ahead, bought up half the library. Fiction, history, geography, biology – I learned as much out of books marked ‘Westdowns – DISCARDED’ as I did at school. I remember with particular fondness one called ‘Blood’, which talked about black pudding and blood brothers, and had a family tree illustrating the progress of haemophilia through the royal families of Europe. There was one about weightlessness and gravity populated by zany cartoon characters ahead of their time. And a whole swarm of Ladybirds.

Then there were the Blue Peter annuals. My first one came from a church fete at Elton. Book Fifteen, with a blue, trapezey cover. My mother bought it for me: ‘You’ll like these: they have things to make in them.’ Didn’t they just. I’m not sure I ever made very many of them – I remember covering a spice pot in halved clothes pegs to make a pencil holder – but the idea was there. Books contained things to make, and I liked making things.

The funny thing about the Blue Peters was that we never had a television. Or perhaps that wasn’t so funny. I never joined the Brownies, either, and yet I had a dozen Brownie annuals at one point. And again, when things got a bit much in the house, I went round to our traveller friends’ bus and read their copy of Mary Berry’s Step by Step Desserts.

The thing about all these books was that I read them and thought ‘I could do that’. Sometimes I went on and did it. Sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter.

Fiction, too, suggested that anything was possible. I have been thinking a lot of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes recently. That was a book about determined women earning a living by doing something that they thought was worth doing, and it has modelled, consciously or otherwise, my ideal of an integrated artistic life. It talked sense about the importance of hard work and luck as well as that of talent.

Poetry, most of all, drew me in, dancing on the page, persuading me that I could do that, too. (I couldn’t – not at first. But books also tell you to keep going, to keep trying, that not everything is perfect first time round.)

Books, whether they be fiction or not, contain stories. The best ones invite you in to join them, and then send you out equipped with new tools, new ideas, to try it for yourself.

April Moon day 4: being looked after

The last time I felt completely relaxed was one and a half years ago. Due to a complicated chain of events that I can’t now be bothered to go into, I was staying with a university friend and his parents. I was being fed, housed, amused. I slept in a comfortable white-sheeted bed. I walked twenty minutes to work and five minutes to church. Regarding future plans, I’d fallen into the exact job I needed. After a summer of horrible, grinding insecurity, it was bliss. For two weeks I was comprehensively, deliciously, looked after, and I let myself enjoy it.

Have I really not felt relaxed since then? Apparently not. I was moving house, and then I was unpacking, and then I was ill. I’ve been feeling very well over the past week or so, but it’s been the sort of bubbling glowiness that I get when I’m coming out of depression. Wonderful, but not at all relaxing.

I am not very good at looking after myself. When other people look after me it’s lovely (depending, of course, on the people), and I am learning how to accept it graciously (again, depending on the people), but – well. It is all very well for me to collapse on the sofa, but first I have to take all the books off it. And the fact that the books got there in the first place, and have remained there, is probably a sign that I should have been looking after myself better. There. It is so very easy for it to become another ‘should’.

April Moon: day 3: “I feel I brought those children into the world”

My great-grandmother, having introduced her former beau to a suitable young lady, was wont to say of the resulting offspring, ‘I feel I brought those children into the world’.

History does not record what the suitable young lady said about that.

Which is to say that birth as a metaphor for anything that is not birth has never worked very well for me. It somehow manages to diminish both birth and work, and I am really uncomfortable with using it of my own projects.

I am not entirely sure why that might be. It’s not as if I am particularly squicked by the concept of birth – I spent my teenage years as unofficial chief proofreader for Midwifery Matters, and as a result I probably know as much as anyone who hasn’t actually been there and done it about the physiological, practical and political aspects of birth. I can tell you what ‘O. P.’ stands for both in the Latin and the vulgar. I can explain why a common party balloon makes a reasonable model for the uterus. I can talk about the importance of continuous one-to-one midwifery care. What I absolutely cannot do is apply this to my own work.

Possibly I’m too much of a literalist. Take my long-going novel, for example. I resist applying the birth metaphor to that, because I am irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that the pregnancy has lasted seven years but nobody actually knows whether the conception was successful. I end up wandering through the animal kingdom (‘Well, horses and deer and things are born and then stand up within a few hours, while human infants need intensive nurturing for years before one can safely leave them to their own devices. Birds lay eggs – which is the nearest thing to birth – but then have to incubate them for weeks…’) and end up concluding that the current project is actually a marsupial.

And, jumping back behind the metaphor to what I think is the intention behind the prompt, my most recent project, into which I put a huge amount of work and of which I am extremely proud, has the unedifying title ‘Private Contractors Database’. One can’t talk about ‘birthing’ a ‘private contractors database’ without falling about laughing. At least, I can’t. The metaphors that do spring to mind are building (largely, of recent weeks, in the context of Rudyard Kipling’s If: ‘If you can see the things you gave your life to, broken/And stoop and build them up with Sharepoint 2013…’) and transformation.

The Private Contractors Database wasn’t my idea. It already existed, in an embryo (ha!) form. My role in bringing it to where it is now was more like this:

My manager: Well, we have six white mice and a pumpkin. We need a coach. I want you to look into coach-building possibilities.
Me: No problem; let me think about it.

Six months later, after a lot of hard work (important point! ‘hard work’ is often a translation of ‘magic’) we have a coach.

This is all very interesting, because I had thought that the part of me that was a fairy godmother had packed up and flown off when I stopped temping. I’d been looking after other people too much; it was time for me to look after myself. (I have a feeling I’ll be writing more about this soon…) But I look at the projects that I’m working on at the moment, and I see: one is a quilt for a baby. One is a necklace to surprise a friend.

Even the novel is a coming-of-age present for some imaginary godchild, to tell them that, whoever they are, they are turning out exactly as they should be.

April Moon: day 2: “Good job. Keep it up.”

Ten years ago, I was almost exactly at the mid-point of university, half-way through my second year. I lived in the House of Weird (12 Mowbray Avenue, Exeter) with people who are still my best friends. I was, by and large, having a whale of a time. Ten-years-ago me was bright, cheerful, had a social life that current-me remembers with affection and mild envy. She spent her time reading, walking, planning extravagant fancy-dress parties. Ten-years-ago me was having a fantastic time, and, more to the point, knew it. I’m not sure that there’s a huge amount that I could teach her.

Knowing what I know now, I would tell my ten-years-ago self,

just these few things that might have made her life a bit easier:

– bisexuality is an identity that exists, and you are perfectly entitled to adopt it at this point in your life. Even though you are not sure that anything with ‘sexual’ in it applies to you. Even though you are thinking seriously about permanent celibacy.
– that thing from last year? Not your fault. Not your fault at all. He was taking advantage of your being socialised to be nice. You don’t need to feel guilty about it any longer.
– you are allowed to say ‘yes’ the first time. People don’t ask you to do things unless they want you to.
– you are allowed to spend money on yourself, to buy yourself nice things. It isn’t your job to mitigate the shortcomings of the entire world by depriving yourself.
– don’t set your heart on the Church (not that she’d have listened to me on that one. She didn’t listen to anyone else!)

And (the one thing that might have changed things):

Don’t forget this. Don’t forget who you are now. This is a high, and I think you know it. Just see if you can’t find a way to carry some of this momentum forwards into what comes next.

And:

No matter, because you did well. Good job. Keep it up.

April Moon: day 1: ‘Well, you’ve all got it.’

‘Well, you’ve all got it.’

Half the office, it seemed, had hung around to see whether we would get it. Four of us, employed on temporary contracts for going on for two years in some cases. I was the youngest, and the newest, having been there only since mid-January. Now it was August, interviews had taken place over the past two days, and I was beginning to dare to hope.

When I came in, I was as low as I ever had been. My previous temp placement had been three months at the local hospital, handing out hearing aid batteries and making appointments. The job I was covering came up, and I was interviewed, and I didn’t get it.

The annoying thing was, I would have liked temping, if I’d felt that I was allowed to. It appealed to my fairy-godmother persona: I was the person who flew in, swept up the mess, and flew off again. I had no particular desire to stay in any workplace long-term; most of them had been horrible. But one couldn’t admit to that. I’d bought in to other people’s ideas about stability and permanence and planning for the future.

And yes, I would quite have liked more of those things in my life as well, but I could have done without the corollary, that any job with an end date wasn’t worth having. I could have done without writing myself off as a failure even as I had a job, even as I was supporting myself, even as I was learning how to operate as an adult in the workplace.

Temping for temping’s sake would have been fun. Temping as a stepping stone to a permanent job was depressing. I was always wondering if this was the one, and feeling that if it were I’d have to be grateful. I was very lucky that the one turned out to be the one it was. I’m still there, five years, four job titles and two offices later.

When I think of the others – the hospital library (lovely people, but a boring job); the exam script-checking (awful – we were treated as if we were back at school); the hospital medical records library (eight months with no natural light, no wonder I got depressed that year) – I am very glad that this was the one that stuck.

I remember how we all clustered at the end of that day, knowing that the interviews were done, knowing that the decisions were being made. I remember the glinting silver blinds, the slight August stuffiness.

I remember the waiting.

Well, you’ve all got it.

That’s how I knew that this chapter of my life had ended.

And now I was free to…

get on with the job. Devise and put in place systems that would make things run far more efficiently than I’d dared before. Finish all these projects I had started. Ask to be moved to other tasks. Get more experience.

Finish other projects, outside the workplace.

There is, after all, something to be said for security. It quiets everything that tells you, ‘don’t rock the boat’, and some boats need rocking.

I’m never quite free, though; even five years on, I have those phantom chains around my ankles, and I have to consciously kick them off. ‘You can’t finish this,’ my past self whispers to me. ‘What if they decide they don’t need you any more?’ And I tell her things about redundancy law and experience, but she still isn’t quite convinced.

And of course, they might decide they don’t want me any more. Nothing is certain, and in a job that is as dependent as mine is upon the political climate, I can’t be sure that ‘they’ won’t decide they don’t need me any more. All the same, I know this:

– that I was a decent temp
– that I’m doing a better job now that I’m not constantly worrying about where the next month’s work is going to come from
– that my worth is not defined by how much someone is paying me
– that I would manage. Because I did before, and this time I know it.