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.

Reverb day 5: in flight

Go on, show us your selfie! You know you want to.

If you’ve been a part of Reverb before, you know that this is the bit where I invite you to share your favourite photo of yourself from the year (selfie or otherwise).

For bonus points, give us a montage of the photos you have shared during each Reverb you’ve participated in. (Throwback Thursdays #tbt are also welcome!)

For some reason, there haven’t been many photos of me this year. In fact, I was going to put up a glowering selfie in atrocious lighting that I took a few days ago, but then I remembered that my friend Anne had sent me some pictures from my 30th birthday party. Here’s my favourite:

Flying
Flying at my 30th birthday party

This is what they call a ‘basket’, and it is the most amusing move in the Cumberland Square Eight. There are two men and two women (or people who have assumed those roles for the duration of the dance, whatever). The men put their arms around the women’s waists; the women put their arms over the men’s shoulders. Then you start spinning. If you go fast enough then the women take off, as we have done in this picture. I’m the one on the right, in the black-and-white chequerboard dress. You end up with very achey arms, but it’s tremendous fun.

I was wearing that same dress in my photo from two years ago, I remember. I can’t show you that, or 2012’s, because Facebook is down. In the meantime, however, here’s last year’s:

Kathleen Jowitt

 

Reverb day 4: stocktaking and replenishing

Replenishing
Replenishing

As the year ends, and we look back at the joys, achievements and disappointments of the past twelve months, it’s worth taking some time to recognise what our efforts have demanded of us and where our resources have been depleted.

Whether you have spent 2015 bringing some long-cherished project to fruition or simply trying to keep your head above water, it’s likely that this has come at some cost to you.

How can you replenish your (physical, mental, spiritual and/or emotional) resources? What do you need most of all at this moment?

I feel slightly diffident writing to my own prompt. I’m also amused, both by my own foresight in knowing that I’d be feeling like a wrung-out dishcloth by this point in the winter, and by Kat’s timing in putting it up today, when I am feeling much like a wrung-out dishcloth that I was sent home sick from work, and have spent most of the afternoon asleep.

What have I spent 2015 doing? Editing Speak Its Name and preparing it for publication. (I’d rather hoped that it would be out in the world at this point; it’s getting there, but slowly, slowly… I’ll take stock at the end of December, and hope to be able to give a publication date then.) Planning and executing what one of my colleagues calls a ‘birthday parade’ – a succession of activities and celebrations to mark my 30th birthday. In my case, it was a four-day walk from Reading to Winchester, which I am intending to write up on this blog before too long, a birthday party with a ceilidh and a ride on a 1935 Renault TN4F and a 1959 Leyland Tiger Cub (both buses, if you were wondering!), and seeing Joan Baez at Cambridge Folk Festival. Replaying an old work pattern, where I get bored in a quiet period and then over-commit myself for a busy one. Working through some fairly mind-blowing mental revelations.

Yes; it makes sense that I am feeling a little run-down! And I’m still in this over-committed pattern: coming down with this bug today has meant that I’ve missed two social activities already, and am likely to miss at least some of the four planned for the long weekend. The first day I have that’s completely free, where I have nothing planned and no obligations to anyone, is 22nd December. I’m not going to let that happen next year; I’m going to fight for my free weekends.

This year I’ve also come to notice just how much of an introvert I am. The week where I had two conferences, a leaving do, a 60th birthday party and a huge family lunch was a bit of an eye-opener; I ended up hiding downstairs crying on that last day. I am reluctantly realising that I just can’t cope with that many people for that sustained a length of time. I need to build much more solitude into my life.

So how to replenish my resources? I wrote yesterday about a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off cycle. I would like, without burdening myself with yet more obligations during this over-committed Advent, to start thinking about things I can do during my recovery weeks to refresh myself. More: I would like to start doing those things now. I would like to find blissful gaps in all this bustle and charivari. Why not? I need replenishing now.

Take long, warm, baths. Shut my study door. Read poetry. Wander around parks and museums in my lunch break. Read old, familiar books. Read new, exciting books. Lie on my sofa and listen to grand opera. Go for long walks. Notice things.

What do I need most of all at this moment? To go to bed. Good night, all.

Reverb day 3: taking my cue from the moon

When was the last time you stopped to look up at the moon?

What did she have to say to you?

This morning, wheeling my bike out to the road, I looked up, above the houses opposite. A pink-and-blue morning sky, and a crisp, clear-edged half moon, with just a few hours to go, I suppose, before it became a perfect semi-circle. ‘Moon!’ I said, but I was tired and grumpy, and didn’t wait for a reply before cycling off.

Of late, I’ve been paying more attention to the moon than I used to. I’ve been noticing where in the cycle we are. I’ve been looking at the little circles in my diary and at the app on my phone, so that even if I can’t see the moon, I know what’s going on. I can tell whether it’s waxing or waning by looking which way the curve faces.

I’ve also been noticing my own rhythms. Not those rhythms – I’ve never had a regular menstrual cycle, and, if I’m honest, really don’t give a toss – but the less obvious rhythms, the ones that only become obvious when I pay very careful attention. This year, I noticed that every time I participated in a month-long writing activity, I ran out of steam after the first two weeks. I noticed that engaging in social activities on adjacent weekends leaves me feeling exhausted and anti-social. I read Slow Time. And I started wondering.

This year’s experiment is going to involve the moon. I’m going to see how a two weeks on/two weeks off cycle works for me. I’ll begin work on my projects at the new moon, working as intensely as I feel moved during the following two weeks, and then take stock at the full moon. After that I’ll wind down; I’ll tie up loose ends, but I won’t expect my productivity to be nearly so high. I’ll pay particular attention to rest and recuperation. I will make sure to leave every other weekend clear.

My day job will continue as normal. There are some things over which I have no control! But even there I’ll pay attention to the peaks and troughs, and where work eats one weekend I’ll make sure I get the next one to myself.

I have, of course, a whole chorus of objections in my head:

  • “What The Hell Is This WooWoo Hippie Shit”
  • “You Know You Don’t Believe A Word Of This”
  • “You Realise Your Coffee Cup Exerts More Of A Gravitational Pull On You Than The Moon Does”

(These three are slightly mollified by my assuring them that I’m treating the moon more as a clock.)

  • “You Are A Disgrace To The Sisterhood”

(This one thinks that actually I should be attempting to align my menstrual cycle with the moon, to which I say, blow that for a lark)

and

  • “What Is Wrong With You Why Can’t You Just Push On Through”

(To which I point out that this approach has been working so well of late, hasn’t it?)

So perhaps that’s what the moon’s got to say to me today. Two weeks of waxing, two weeks of waning, is enough for anybody. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Full moon
A rather blurry photo of last week’s full moon

Reverb day 2: surprises at 30

The magnolia in our front garden went crazy this Winter. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think it worthy of mention — even though it stopped me in my tracks every time I walked out the front door — but, to be honest, up until that point I had given up on it.

It had been looking so straggly the past few years, I just assumed it was past its prime and that it would be just a matter of time before we needed to make a decision re: chopping it down. The wild blooms felt like a beautiful reminder that things we’ve given up for dead may still surprise us with a new lease of life.

What surprised you this year?

I turned thirty this year. That wasn’t the surprise.

What surprised me this year? The capacity for my ridiculous plans to work out surprisingly well. Walking fifty miles in four days and then throwing a party the next day in a place I’d never seen before in my life? Why the hell not? It turns out that I’ve still got my walking legs, and it was a brilliant party.

What surprised me this year? Just how much time I need to recuperate between events where I have to interact with large numbers of people. Now that I’ve started paying attention to what tires me and what helps me recover, I’m discovering that I get worn out remarkably quickly, and that even people I know well and love dearly can become too much of a good thing. Next year I’ll be better prepared for that; I’ll be ruthless with my calendar and make myself a hermitage or six.

What surprised me this year? A whole lot of developments inside my own head. The discovery that I wasn’t nearly as accepting of LGBT Christians as I’d thought I was – at least, not when the LGBT Christian in question was myself. My ability to forgive myself for that. The realisation that actually I do believe that we should be dismantling the institution of marriage. The mind-blowing epiphany that I’m allowed to make choices based on my own preferences.

What surprised me this year? How strongly I suddenly feel about things. How intense my sense of right and wrong has become; how frustrating I find hedging and politicking.

What surprised me this year? My own confidence. It seems to have grown exponentially since last December, and I thought I was doing pretty well then. But over this year I’ve been letting go of my need for outside affirmation.

(I should note, for honesty’s sake if nothing else, that today is a bit of a wobbly day. Today I am wondering if other people think I am terrible, and, if so, whether I will ever find out about it. But I’m aware that this isn’t real, that it’s a symptom of an illness, and that it will recede in a little while, and leave me with this groundedness, this trust in my own competence, that’s there underneath it all.)

I haven’t quite got to the point where I genuinely don’t care what anyone else thinks, but I am able to take ownership of my own actions, principles and decisions in a way that I used to find terrifying. Perhaps this is part of turning thirty. Perhaps it’s a by-product of work I’ve been doing elsewhere. Whatever the facts, it’s a wonderful surprise.