Writing

I’m going to stop being afraid of writing.

Neil Gaiman, Rainer Maria Rilke and Gustav Holst are the specific heavyweight inspirations for this burst of courage. But explaining the initial reticence which has silenced me for more than a few months is a complicated one and comes down to several wildly different things in my personal life. Continue reading “Writing”

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Conservation and change in Nidderdale

Here’s the full text of an opinion piece I’ve drafted for the Friends of Nidderdale AONB newsletter – where it did end up, albeit in edited down form. I thought I might as well archive it here. It was a bit of a spontaneous rant inspired by the paradoxical nature of the word ‘conservation’. Continue reading “Conservation and change in Nidderdale”

All we like sheep

Although it’s poor style to start with an ‘incidentally’… It was odd when I googled the above phrase to discover (having sung it as part of the Messiah but somehow omitted to properly pay attention) that the sheep are not those who blindly follow, but those who dissent (in Isiah, they are those who wander or stray and who need a shepherd to bring them back to the correct path). It’s interesting because the cultural meme of a sheep corresponds, surely, more to the religious devotee than to the atheist. I’d forgotten that the bible verse gives the sheep the opportunity to make its own path. Continue reading “All we like sheep”

Some folks’ lives

One of my favourite Paul Simon songs is “Some folks’ lives” and I was reminded of it today meeting some other Harrogate Gingerbread mums and sharing stories. Here are the lyrics; have a listen:

It’s a song that, to me, now, poses an implicit challenge. Will we catch our star? Where do you turn when you’re at rock bottom?

And does stumbling always mean you fall? It’s the challenge to be one of those who stumbles but who doesn’t fall; to be a person who picks him or herself up and tries again, the star still in reach.

Maybe some folks’ lives do roll easy. Most, however, have been touched by loss, trauma, and darkness in life.

Many single parents have experienced very extreme situations in our personal lives and we are still negotiating them (and I’m increasingly realising that we are more numerous than it would seem on the surface). For us, a life that rolls easy is a distant dream from childhood. It’s a lost innocence. We feel there’s a small, dark sense in which we’ve grown up, and we can never go back.

For those of us who have been through nightmarish times, the only way to survive them is to plant our feet and claim back normality for ourselves and our children; to refuse to be beaten and to succumb to the darkness; and to take little steps to protect ourselves and make sure that we are surviving. We WILL be happy, and we won’t hear a suggestion otherwise.

Every separation, every heartbreak and relationship trauma is acutely painful in its own way and has its own idiosyncratic horror built in; on whatever scale that horror plays out. Sometimes the most spectacular endings are the easiest to deal with. Amicable relationships can result from horrible crises, and nasty fallout can result from apparently calm separations. Sometimes angry, passionate breakups might be easier than silent, private, empty tragedies: and vice versa. There are very few stories that resemble each other, and all of us have different feelings about our exes, and different wishes for the future.

All our lives are playing out at different speeds, and we’re all on different stages. There are the first weeks into single parenthood, the adrenaline-fuelled pangs, anguish of separation and battles for visitation; the philosophical 8 months in, where the immediate fog has lifted and you can enjoy a little perspective; the optimistic 16 months in, where life has settled, the urgent loneliness has faded, and the horizon forward looks clearer; and people four years down the line whose lives are reshaping and resettling gradually into new forms. Then there are people trapped in stagnant situations and for whom time doesn’t seem to effect change. Those of us who are just beginning to emerge from the darkness wish we could help them in some way.

We’ve all been at the lowest points where we don’t know where to look for help. And maybe help is there, in the shape of family, friends, or perhaps a faith that helps us feel stronger. But in the end, we have to rely on ourselves to grow a strength from inside: it’s the only way. We’ll deal with the ex, we’ll deal with the divorce, we’ll deal with being short of money, we’ll deal with the house, we’ll deal with the children’s tantrums and potty training and childcare, we’ll deal with the arguments and the tears and the fun things and the tiring things, we’ll deal with learning to live again, learning to love again, and finding a new place in life on our own.

Because no matter what we end up doing or who we end up living with, we’ll always be single parents. That inevitably defines us, right from the moment our innocent hope of making our ideal family broke apart, and until our children are adults and beyond. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There’s something liberating and strengthening about learning to negotiate life on your own terms and drawing up your own rules.

Now that we’ve been through what we’ve been through, life can roll however it wants; we’re ready; we may stumble but we’ll get up again; and some day, we’ll catch our star.

Focus

It’s been a while – in fact, a month to the day – since I used this blog properly, and I can feel it. My posts on Facebook are getting somewhat erratic (and lengthy, as I feel the urge to dissert on various topics); emails and messages to friends are not at their most coherent; I feel tired and thoughts are swimming around unstructured. These are all telltale symptoms of not writing enough.

It’s odd that, even having written that first paragraph things seem to start to coalesce in my head. And writing a short anecdote about choir just now has had the effect of depositing that topic out of ‘processing’ mode, too. That’s it; it’s down on (virtual) paper; filed away. I definitely believe in keeping a tidy mental ‘inbox’.

A friend on Facebook pointed out very insightfully and kindly (because I very much love and value honest and constructive advice and people who are not afraid to criticise) that rather than spending time on Facebook talking at people, tilting at windmills and producing faintly ranty waffles, I should focus. Write a book, instead of talking about how much I’d like to write one. Use the time I have, rather than moaning about how quickly it passes.

It made me determined to keep the word ‘focus’ in my mind. It’s true that I often feel I’m overflowing with ideas and projects (which means that all too frequently my friends on Facebook are the recipient of some of my new pet topics or momentary flashes of opinion or – occasionally untested and possibly questionable – insight…) but if I can make sure they are usefully challenged then that is the best use of both my actual, practical time, and my energy.

I have always known that I am at my best if I have a project. Unfortunately, sometimes they are not of my choosing (my very unpleasant divorce which began over a year ago occasionally rears its head, and is a project I could definitely live without having to deal with). But mostly I have been fortunate in that I have several different professional tasks that are good positive projects to tackle, and which I can care about and believe in. If I make sure I focus on ‘focus’, and keep my friend’s remark in my mind, I hope I will be able to channel my energy usefully.

That applies to writing in general, and the voluntary and paid projects I am involved with in my work, but also ideas, thoughts and opinions. Not too long ago, I worked on a PhD for five years with the aim of exploring and testing ideas and concepts about visual culture and gender which I had developed. I still think in these sorts of ways, and develop mini-theories about things in society which it would be interesting to test. Rather than disseminating them randomly into the ether of social media to be lost, I should curate them, value them, collate them and investigate their usefulness to see if there are bigger projects hidden behind their possibilities. If there are, then I don’t want to waste them.

It’s the little things…

I’ve written a new post for Grads.co.uk, called “It’s the little things…” about the experience of having a baby during my PhD. It’s here, if anyone would like to read it. That’s my fourth post for Grads, now, where I post about the experience of being a student, graduate and jobseeker – most of my posts so far are about being an older-than-typical jobseeking graduate. The nice thing about writing these posts is how easily they come!

The Lamb

Something which often preoccupies me is how an atheist (like me) can fully engage with and experience art which is inspired by religious faith.  That’s not to say I don’t think it’s possible, as in fact I think rather the opposite. But defining how that works is difficult. Here’s a small snapshot of thought from the other day, inspired by Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’, which is a choral setting of a poem by William Blake.

I think how Blake interprets Christian imagery here (and I’m writing in full awareness that my literary culture in general and my knowledge of Blake in particular are poor: I just know he had an unorthodox, personal, and rather powerful visionary take on religious faith) is stunningly moving, and in the music there’s a sense of unease and awe that corresponds, for me, to the tremendous fear that comes through in the poetry, and which should come from genuine faith in these amazing, amazing ideas.

Once you accept God become man, and the power and mystery of the image of the Lamb embodying both incredible humility and incredible power (so that all depends on it and all comes from it – ‘we are called by thy name’) it has to lead to the kind of dark, solemn power which the music finds and conveys both through and beyond the poem.

Go here to listen to a beautiful version on Youtube. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing John Tavener’s “The Lamb”. 1998.

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