Have I set myself up for failure in October, by taking on too many things?
The reason for that is that October is my quietest month at work. The students have come back, my colleagues are very busy, so no one has time for my training courses and webinars. Although I am preparing some behind-the-scenes improvements, it is not as busy as the summer period, when I had no holiday at all. On the personal front as well, things start falling into place after the back to school frenzy. So the plan was to take some days off, but just stay home, rest, tidy up my study, focus on reading and writing.
The reality is…
I’ll be visiting my parents in Romania toward the end of the month (apparently to discuss funeral arrangements and elder care issues, so that will be fun!), plus it’s an opportunity to get some of the boys’ paperwork done so they can get Romanian passports. I also have additional paperwork to prepare and check, as right after we return from Romania, I will be appearing in court for financial settlement in this never-ending divorce case. [For all the wimps who shout ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and cannot handle 3.5 years of Brexit negotiations, they should try 4-5 years of divorce negotiations!] I’ll also be helping out a friend by looking after her children while she is away on a business trip, so cooking for six instead of three and four different schools to handle instead of just two. The last of the admin type issues I’m tackling this month involves something more joyful: it’s still secret and very early stages, but let me just say it might involve a translation of books from Romanian type project.
Joyful though my cultural and social events are, I seem to have agreed to an awful lot of them this month: from the Kenneth Branagh Awards at the Windsor Fringe Festival, to films, plays, opera, taking my son to Duke of Edinburgh Awards-related events, quiz night at my son’s school, the very last university open day (I hope)… as well as trying to go to the gym regularly.
Last but not least, my cup of joyful reading is in danger of running over too. Switzerland in October is a-go, I’ve already read the first (disappointingly un-Swiss) book by Pascale Kramer and have now embarked on Ramuz. Then there is the 1930 Book Club, for which I am very tempted to re-read Camil Petrescu’s Last Night of Love, First Night of War, a Romanian classic. I might feel differently about him and the book now, after reading how he behaved to Mihail Sebastian in the late 1930s. October is also the Orenda month, and I cannot go past it without picking up at least one (or two) of their most recent books! I am also continuing to read the ‘one entry a day’ readalong for Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries on the Mookse and Gripes site and am trying to stay clear of the temptation to reread Proust in preparation for Backlisted Pod’s Christmas special. The #EU27Project needs to finally conclude at some point. Plus, that pesky library keeps pestering me with some China Mieville, Iain Banks and Nicola Barker books that I also want to read…
What I absolutely must do, even if it comes at the expense of anything else on the above list, is edit my poems and start putting them together for a chapbook. The need for artistic ‘selfishness’ has become obvious, as this article on the dangers of kindness points out.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? I often complain that people nowadays are incapable of talking to each other without a device to mediate between them. I despise people who bring their phones wherever they go… and actually answer them or check messages while they are having lunch or dinner with you. I can happily live without a single glance online while on holiday, surrounded by my physical books, good food, stunning landscapes – with only a minor urge to immortalise that moment in a photograph. I advocate (or should that be nag?) that families should unplug from the internet and spend more time together.
But then our internet and phone connection fails completely and I go mad with rage. My dear online friend, fellow crime lover, academic and author Margot Kinberg wrote a post about this very recently.
The meltdown is not instant, you understand.
The first day, I’m quite relieved to be untraceable. I happily finish a book (or two) guilt-free, write my WIP with relish. The second day, I even take on additional tasks which have been put off for far too long: tidying out wardrobes and the garage. I bake cakes with my sons and try to keep snails as pets in a glass jar. Yes! Quality time!
By the third day, I miss the companionship of Twitter and blogs, but I can just about live with it. And yes, before you ask, it IS different from being offline during a holiday, because it’s not my own decision. It’s being forced upon me, and I have no idea how long it will last, so cannot make plans.
On the fourth day, I start to feel incredibly isolated and frustrated, especially when the calls on my mobile to the internet service provider Numericable prove fruitless. Did I tell you that mobile reception is rubbish in my house, so I have to either hang halfway out the window in the bedroom upstairs, stand in a corner of the garden where my neighbours can hear every word, or be on hold for 20 minutes with outrageous Swiss roaming charges? (We live on the border, and sometimes the Swiss signal is far stronger than the French one).
Yes, yes, first world problems, I can see you roll your eyes just now. I’ve done it myself in the past. I’ve had to remind myself of others who’ve fled home with no belongings, perhaps no families, only their lives and a few memories. I came across a woman in one of the McDonald’s I found refuge in, who gave me a bit of reality check: left penniless after an acrimonious divorce, living in a part of France with high unemployment, she had made her way to this part of the world, in the hope of finding a job in or near Geneva. She was sleeping in her car, having a shower at the swimming pool and applying for jobs online while nursing a cup of coffee for hours at McDo. Life could be worse.
Of course, my parents live happily without a landline, internet or computer. But they are retired, live in the countryside, walk daily to the marketplace to buy their food and newspapers, and spend most of the day in the garden. They also forget to take their mobile with them into the garden, so I seldom can reach them during the day. They don’t even have a proper aerial for their TV, so can only watch one channel, shaky at that.
So, yes, life like that is possible and undoubtedly very peaceful.
I have it neither so good, nor so bad as some others.
I merely have to move a family, a household full of goods, a cat and some broken pieces of myself back to the UK this summer. All I need to do is ensure a smooth handover of schools, orthodontists, doctors, banks, utilities companies… well, I don’t need to go on about this, you all have experienced a move, and I’ve done it many times before, so I could handle it if I could do my research online and then phone. But I can do neither.
In the meantime, all the usual end of school year craziness is amplified, because it is the LAST one EVER (I am using my teenage son’s emphatic style), and they also want to have farewell parties and birthday parties and do memorable things which you’d always meant to do, as well as return to all their favourite places in the area to say goodbye. No matter how often I repeat to myself: ‘You can’t make everyone happy. You are not chocolate’, I still fall into the trap of trying, partly because of the guilt about disrupting the children’s life by moving again.
Just to add to the mess, there are a couple of deadlines for writing competitions, debut novels or debut poetry chapbooks which I want to make sure that I don’t miss. Besides, I do also have a day job, even if it’s become nearly invisible of late. I’m supposed to facilitate a few courses in mid-June, but so far have been unable to access the (very large) files, because public WiFi does not like Dropbox and other such sharing platforms. Ironically, one of the courses is on working in virtual teams…
In fact, life is full of irony at the moment. I could share such funny stories with you! How I sit in a car outside someone’s house because I know they don’t have a security key on their WiFi (this must be illegal in at least 50 countries). How I buy a cup of coffee (although I don’t really want another one) in a neighbourhood café and sit down with a sigh for an action-packed morning of work, only to discover that their own WiFi isn’t working. How I then rush back to McDonald’s, where the lady at the counter already knows I avoid their coffee and prefer a smoothie (why do they no longer provide their classical strawberry milkshake, for heaven’s sake?). I can never stay for more than an hour there, before it gets too busy and noisy at lunchtime, or all day really, as there are construction sites just outside, cleaning staff mopping underneath your feet in the morning, team meetings in the ‘quiet’ corner in the afternoon. I could share with you strategies for switching on/off/on/off even at these public WiFi spots, so that the simplest cut and paste from a Word document to a website only takes five times longer than it should, instead of ten times.
Why don’t you buy some temporary internet access via your mobile phone? Why don’t you use your neighbours’ networks? I’ve been asked all that. The answer is that you awake each day with renewed belief that today is the day when the problem will be fixed. You are not told from the beginning that it will take 3 weeks (or more?). Unless you are my older son, who had his own meltdown about not being able to use his tablet to search for film reviews or cheat sheets for video games. Now he gloomily predicts that internet will never come back until we go to England.
I can also write a film script for a farce about how my neighbours felt sorry for me and gave me the key to their house to use their WiFi, but forgot to switch off their alarm. To make things worse, the key was for the cellar door, so I looked doubly sneaky, but luckily, I was spotted trying to smuggle a laptop into the house, rather than out of it. The second time I try this, having been told the alarm is most definitely off now, I discover the key doesn’t actually turn in the lock.
I could also tell you the classic tale of Cinderella after everyone went to the ball. How I sat at home all day waiting for the engineer to come and fix this problem, biting my cuticles, not wanting to start any serious writing for fear of being interrupted, popping out the front door at the sound of every car or even bicycle, only to be stood up like a wallflower. Of course, it was then reported back to HQ that he did come to our address, but there was no one home and the phone (yes, the one that hasn’t had a dial tone in 3 weeks) was engaged.
Oh, so many potential sources of Mr. Beanish confusions! Being held up at the border in the UK because I have not filled in the right forms for our cat. The French Tax Office sending a Jean Reno in Leon look-alike professional to shoot me for not filling my tax returns in time (which, from this year on, can only be done online). How I will wing it for the workshops, having never seen the slides before that day: ‘Oh, look, and that’s another thing I should be talking about, but I don’t know what it means!’ Last but not least, a domestic noir brief about a wife murdering a husband who not only doesn’t shoulder any of the burden (other than to murmur supportively that he misses watching BBC iPlayer and Netflix), but actually forwards you (via email) the one and only enquiry you get from posting a few sales items on his company intranet, because you have not had much joy with Facebook sales postings even when you could access them daily. Why? It was in French, of course, and one can’t be expected to speak any French after studying it in high school over twenty years ago and living in France for 8 years in total.
Some day in the distant, rosy horizon of a future where all our thoughts can be uploaded instantly and transmitted to whom we like, when we like and only if we like, without depending on any cables or optic fibres or the people who put them in the ground, and without any ‘oops, wrong button’ moments…
Some day, when Numericable company bosses will have died a slow and agonising death, not before paying out a large compensation to all those unhappy customers who have not been able to do their work or live their lives for so many weeks…
Some day, when this madness will have passed, when your health and sanity will have returned, when husbands will have been buried and courts will have been clement because you had ample provocation…
Some day, this too shall pass and seem hilarious! Until then… ohmmmmm….
I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.
‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’
And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.
I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?
My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.
The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?
When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.
A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.
When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.
My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’
But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.
‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.
Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.
Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.
I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.
Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable… good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’
What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.
I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.
I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?
This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?
Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!
What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…
What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.
OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write – haven’t you had enough time during the day?
This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.
I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’
I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.
Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.
‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’
This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:
This is my 500th blog post and came out much more self-absorbed and personal than I intended. But it’s perhaps an important marker and reminder for me in years to come. For those of a squeamish disposition, look away now. Normal service will resume shortly.
The delightful Annabel introduced me to a really fun and easy meme: a year’s worth of blog posts condensed in first lines.The “rules” are simple: Take the first line of each month’s first post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year. Links go back to the original posts. So I started off with great enthusiasm:
But after that it was downhill all the way. My first liners were pedestrian, prosaic, just plain boring – summarising lots of reading or introducing other people’s reading habits. There was little sparkle or insight there. Which got me thinking that, really, that’s what 2014 has been like for me. This blog is nearly three years old and the first year 2012 was all about rediscovering writing, 2013 was all about balancing the brain-numbing professional success with my love of reading and writing. But what of 2014?
It’s been a knotty year of ‘nots’. Not travelling or working quite so much. Not buying into the dreaded corporate speak or business targets. But also not writing, not finishing the final edits of Novel No. 1, not starting on Novel No. 2, not writing as many poems as I would have liked, not feeling inspired. A year of not making any new friends, not joining the parents’ associations at the new schools, not getting involved in fundraising and cake-baking.
It’s been a year of ‘overs’ – over-worrying, over-explaining, over-analysing, over-imagining and over-reading. Those 180 or so books I’ve swallowed – don’t you think they are some displacement activity? A way to bury yourself into someone else’s words instead of having to find your own? A subtle way to keep the most fearsome thoughts at bay? What was I hoping to find in them, answers, solutions, or mere temporary distraction? Dispersed attention, dissed author, discombobulated, distorted pictures, yet kept on moving.
Finally, it’s also been a year of ‘burning’. Burning bridges – or thinking about it – or dreaming about it and waking up with a matchbox in my hands. Burning deep, ugly brand marks into the palms of my hands – just because I could, just to remind myself that I was alive. Burning hurtful words into my memory, so that, someday, when the emotions are less raw, I could turn them into searing fiction others can relate to. Burning up inside. With all that I cannot express or must suppress. Burning with righteousness and sense of injury. Burning with anger. Turning into an ugly monster spouting lava slurs and watching my own children turn equally ugly and full of invectives. Burning to cinders all that I have, all that I am. Hoping to renew. Having lost hope in phoenix-like rebirths or reinventions.
It’s been a fallow field of a year. But I tell myself that fields need to be allowed to breathe and regenerate, to mitigate the build-up of pathogens and pests, to rebuild its nutrients for the more fertile periods to follow. Yet farming annals tell us that a field can also be at its most vulnerable to erosion when it lies fallow.
For a writer, however, even erosion is good. Nothing is lost… except time.
That perennial shrew and busybody, Old Mother Busyness, has prevented me from graciously accepting and passing on two awards I have received this glorious month of May. But it’s not just her, it’s also that nasty old hag called Shame. Just how deserving am I anyway of these awards? When there are so many other brilliant writers out there?
Today, however, I will kick those two old witches to one side, and mention both awards in one post. Hopefully that will not cause gross offence to the Great Owlish Order of the Great Lords of E-Wisdom, or whoever is currently ruling the Internet.
So, first of all, thank you to Ami Fidele, who has been waiting so patiently for me to respond to his Inspiring Blog award nomination. I have mentioned him before and I will mention him again: he is philosophical, lyrical, a true romantic and he writes beautiful poetry. Oh, and did I say he is a lovely online friend, too?
The second award , One Lovely Blog, comes from a more recent acquaintance, Ash N. Finn. But such is the marriage of true minds over the blogosphere that I already feel we understand each other very well. Thank you, Ash, and if you appreciate really clever and surprising flash fiction, you will love her blog. I was also simultaneously nominated by Honoré Dupuis for this same award, so big thanks to him too, he is such a supportive and active presence on blogs and Twitter, it’s been a pleasure knowing and reading him.
The requirements are quite similar, thanking your ‘nominator’, sharing those dreaded seven personal revelations, the only difference being the number of bloggers you then link to. I will err on the side of plenty, and I will start with the Inspiring Blog Awards, because these are all bloggers I love and look forward to reading. My only complaint is that some of them do not post frequently enough for my taste. Please, guys, let me hear from you soon!
A Literal Girl – American in Oxford, blogs about books, meeting of the minds on the Internet, writing, music and anxiety
Writeitdownith – inspiring writer but also great connector and encourager of people
There are so many more I would love to mention, or mention again. But that’s given you enough to be getting on with. And it also serves as a reminder that I need to update my blogroll.
So now, for those of you who haven’t yet wandered off to check out these lovely bloggers … why haven’t you? That’s the best thing about awards, to connect with others and discover new minds and souls. But if you are waiting with bated breath for those stunning personal revelations, here they are, my favourite seven words in the English language (at least, at this moment in time):
2) serendipity (mine and everyone else’s, but who said I had to be original?)
7) jitterbug (by the way, did you know that the term was originally used to describe alcoholics?)
Uh-oh, it’s just occured to me: I do like long, pretentious sounding words, don’t I? Maybe I should develop a loving relationship with the word ‘purge’!