Re-writing the self: Thoughts on memory

‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.

One of my earliest memories is of being lost in a field near my family home in the country. It was Summertime. I remember the heat and the tall grass looming over me. Small as I was I could see very little, only the sky and the heavy overhang from the leaves of the trees that beckoned me into the forest.

I remember being aware that I was lost – that is, I knew I had wandered away from my childminder in a game of hide and seek and that she hadn’t yet found me – but the idea of being missing wasn’t yet a concept for me. I don’t remember feeling distress, only wonder at this new mellifluous world of the neighbouring field that I hadn’t yet trespassed. I remember my name being called, echoes circling around me, but the length of the grass obscured me from sight so that I was unable to be found.

Perhaps it is a condition of early memories to resemble an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality due to the limits of our perception at that time. This memory of mine is always veiled in a kind of golden haze, either obscured by time or romanticised by my mind. I see shapes, I remember colours. Golds and greens and yellows. I remember the cold relief of wading through the stream. I remember the unsteady path: the soil; the roots that clawed at my ankles. I remember the sensation of being lost but not my emotional response to it. I just remember happiness. A child charmed by curiosity.

While the likelihood is that I entered into a panic and ran through the woods in alarm once I realised I had strayed too far, my mind wants to remember the positive perception I had of my surroundings. It wants childlike inquisitiveness to take precedence over feelings of fear.

It wants to reconcile fragments of memory into a coherent, happy narrative. While our logical minds want to preserve integrity to the facts, there is always a part of us that wants to tell a good story.

Virginia Woolf speaks of the associative potency of memory in her autobiographical essay ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ She tells us that one of her earliest memories was looking at the patterns of flowers on her mother’s dress, as she lay in her lap on a train journey to St. Ives. This is how Woolf always remembered her.

In memory, we are all compelled to understand our lives through narrative and symbolism.

Like the flowers on the dress of Woolf’s mother, I relate my memory to a sensorium of warmth and playfulness, represented by my childlike experience of nature. My memory conveniently chooses to omit my alarm of being lost and instead reframes it as a pleasant adventure.

In Orlando, Woolf acknowledges how our subconscious minds play a part in obscuring memory. She writes, ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.’ Memories are set against a backdrop of narrative that we construct for ourselves. When we look back into the past, we view events through a prism. Integrity to facts falters in our intrinsic desire to tell a more desirable story.

Memory is a seamstress. It weaves together representations of the past into a coherent timeline: a kaleidoscope of images, objects, fragments of conversations, emotions.

It is a mediator between past and present. It preserves connectivity between our present and past selves. More importantly, it situates us in time and place. We make sense of ourselves through the narratives we choose to construct.

Ultimately, we are creators; the seamstresses of our own lives. We subconsciously distort memory, re-fashion narratives, re-write the self and consequently inform the present. We grow by seeing our present selves reflected in images of the past.

Memories, while unreliable, allow us to understand ourselves, our current place in the world. They make artists of us all.

World Down’s Syndrome Day: my brother, Joey.

It’s World Down’s Syndrome Day, and I wanted to write something to honour my younger brother Joseph and raise awareness for his cause.

As of 2018, a new advanced test for Down’s Syndrome, (Non-invasive prenatal testing) will be rolled out to about 10,000 women per year who are considered to have a higher likelihood of giving birth to a baby with this condition. In places like Iceland, 100% of babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted. This increase in screening will mean that fewer children like Joseph will have a chance to live.

Of course, there are conditions where a woman cannot, for valid reasons, bring a child with Down’s Syndrome into the world, and in some cases this is kinder. But a child with Down’s Syndrome is not suffering with a chronic disease. These children aren’t sickly. They require help and support more so than other children as they cannot learn as fast as we can, but many grow up to have stable jobs and take care of themselves.

I think it’s important to debunk the myth that scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, propose on the subject of this condition. Dawkins would have us think that children with Down’s Syndrome are miserable and ailing; existing only to suffer. Dawkins publicly told a woman on Twitter that if she was knowingly pregnant with a child with Down’s syndrome then the only ‘right’ thing to do would be to, ‘Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.’

Immoral.

What Dawkins proposes, to me, is eugenics. He propagates a vision that humans are here solely to reproduce and to, consequently, advance the human race. A simple matter of evolution. He renders people with Down’s Syndrome as entirely dispensable, given that their function as a human, in Dawkins’ eyes, is void.

Richard-Dawkins-cap

People with Down’s Syndrome cannot contribute to the economy or the perpetuation of the human race, but they can lead fulfilling lives. Granted, there are couples who cannot bring a child with Down’s Syndrome into the world for viable reasons but this is not one of them.

I could tell you so many reasons as to why my brother Joseph, known to us as Joey, has been nothing else if not a gift to my family. He is a person who wakes up every day and is enchanted by life. He gives love and joy back to a world that can be unkind.

Joey is a sentient human being, not an economic parasite. My argument, however, doesn’t make sense in scientific Dawkinsian terms. It’s emotional, not logical. Emotionally biased and not at all objective.

Those who meet Joey tend to walk away from the encounter as slightly more enriched individuals. Among his very many quirks of personality, he is entirely charming and extremely good company. He is known at Gloucester Cathedral, where he goes to the children’s church every Sunday, for enthusiastically singing the hymns and shouting out random words like ‘marmite’ and ‘ogan’ (a hilarious mix of ‘organ’ and ‘ogre’), just to lighten the mood. At my great aunt’s funeral, Joey decided the appropriate farewell was ‘Merry Christmas.’ And then there are his nicknames. my dad is often referred to by Joey as ‘big, baldy head’ which has since become a term of endearment.

If I ask Joey to do something, he sighs and rolls his eyes like any typical teenager would. He grunts every time he is asked to go for a bath. When he’s told to turn down his music in his bedroom, he’ll wait until you’ve left the room before cranking it up even louder.

Joey has a smile that leads to laughter so contagious that the hardest of hearts would melt in repose. He is cheeky and mischievous – that is, when he can be bothered. Joey doesn’t really stand, he reclines. He doesn’t walk, but shuffles. He knows no urgency. He moves everywhere at a snail’s pace. A big bundle of joy that you can’t move for the life of you.

Ultimately, Joey doesn’t really care what you think. If he wants to belch in public, he will. If he detects a tone of condescension in your voice, he’ll tell you, quite simply, to p*** off. He knows no bounds. He is completely uninhibited by the superficial social graces that we all perform and that’s what gives him his individuality.

Joey understands a lot more than he can say. He’s receptive to the troubles of those around him and while he can’t offer words, he will offer comfort in gesture. There has been many a time where I have sat and sobbed, and he has rubbed my back and put his hands in mine. An unspoken understanding.

Unlike the rest of us, Joey has no self-pity. He does not understand what it is to be unkind, selfish and resentful. He views every day with a sense of curiosity and wonder and appreciates the small things. The ‘squashed eggs’ (scotch eggs) he looks forward to having every week on a Sunday are symbolic of this ability to find joy in triviality.

To be around Joey is a wholly immersive experience. He will smother you with love and affection and in the same breath remind you that you are fat and bald.

If you distil life down to its brutal essence – the matters of life, death, reproduction – then you get an argument like Dawkins’, one that is ill-informed, reductionist and lacking in humanity.

Joey performs the same function as we all seek to do: to love and to be loved. He triumphs in life simply because he is entirely unashamed of who he is. We could all learn a thing or two from a person like him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding my Balance: My Changing Concept of ‘Home’

Home to me is the sensation of peace on a Sunday morning; the sound of the cathedral bells tolling for morning service; the comforting memory of my mum’s bangles jingling on her wrists; the raucous sound of my brothers running up and down the stairs; my dad elegantly playing the piano and then pausing to slowly pace across the wooden floorboards in the wake of a new idea.

The word ‘home’ can mean any number of things to a person. One of the first questions we ask people when we first meet them is ‘Where do you live?’, or ‘Where do you come from?’ Home is our conception of self, the foundation of our identity. Feeling like you have an origin is an essential part of human nature. We are lone wolves, but we will always be part of a pack.

At five am this morning, I woke up contemplating the Western definition of ‘home’. We associate home with comfort, stability, the familiar. But what if home can be the new and unfamiliar?

Before I moved away, home was a place almost too comfortable to motivate me to make a change. Feeling grounded did little to shake off my feelings of despondency. But what if home is meant to be somewhere that challenges you, somewhere that makes you feel unsafe in order to hurl you out into the unknown? What if home can be mobile, transient, ever-changing?

Over time, we cultivate our lives in many different homes. We shed one shell and adopt another.

It’s been three weeks since I moved to Berlin and already my concept of home has changed. I have found home in myself: my passions, my interests, my own company. Home is still a sanctuary, but it has been constructed out of my own being. Home is no longer a physical place, but a concept.

Home is a place to be content, even if you are far away from those you love. Home for me is where I spend time alone, cultivate ideas, immerse myself in culture, literature, the things I love; learn to speak to myself more kindly, reward myself for small personal triumphs. For now, home is within myself and it’s a powerful feeling.

Home doesn’t just have to be with the familiar. Establishing home in yourself actually involves wading through tides of the unfamiliar. It’s surprising how much we conceal from ourselves.

Making home within yourself involves opening the floodgates to emotion. One cannot know oneself without first knowing how to feel.

Home can be any number of places, but it’s comforts are defined by simple, blissful moments that remind you of where you belong. It is in your own concept of home where the fragments of your life are unified. You will leave parts of you in different places and with different people, but home reminds you of what is absolutely true and integral to your life and character.

Home is the place where my facades are shed. I am entirely myself. Imperfect, flawed, but me.

Home is substantial, safe, secure. Places are home. People are home. You, your mind, your body, is home.

 

 

 

5 SIMPLE WAYS TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE

  1. KNOW YOUR LIMITS

This is something very few of us care to acknowledge. We like to think of ourselves as deadline-driven machines who can conquer any task in any given amount of time.

It’s important to realise your own individual capacity for concentration and honour it. If you feel your mind wandering from your computer screen an hour into your emails then TAKE A BREAK. Even if that means getting up from your desk, making a hot drink, even staring out of the window for a few minutes to refresh your mind. You’ll find that the time you spend not actually concentrating is improved by accepting that your mind doesn’t run on a timer.

2. MAKE A LIST OF PRIORITIES, NOT A TO-DO LIST

Lists are an important tool of productivity. I run my life on them. Ticking completed tasks off is a powerful source of validation of your efforts and helps you feel like you have things under control.

My advice would be not to constrain yourself to time. Of course, we all have deadlines that need to be met. But instead of writing a ‘To-do list’ that has a strict time schedule, make a list of priorities in terms of importance. This will allow you to recognise which tasks need to be the most imminently completed without feeling overwhelmed. The aim is to feel like you have an abundance of time, not a lack of it.

3. WORK IN NATURAL LIGHT

Sleep disorders are epidemic and it’s partially to do with our lack of daylight during office hours. Scientists conclude that our circadian rhythms – our body’s internal clocks – are disrupted by our lack of exposure to daylight. Feeling that midday slump in the office? That will be why. Even if your access to natural light is limited by the plan of your workplace, then take time at lunch to go for a stroll. It will do wonders for your concentration.

4. CLEAN YOUR IMMEDIATE ENVIRONMENT

We don’t all have to be masters of Feng Shui to recognise that a tidy workspace makes for a tidy mind. Our minds are cluttered enough, without having our environment replicate it.

Not only does having a clean workspace keep you focused by limiting distractions, it keeps you more organised. Work on developing your own filing system and invest in some desk organisers. You’ll know where everything is, you’ll waste less time and you’ll be better able to keep on top of things.

5. DO SOMETHING ELSE

If you’re unable to concentrate on the immediate task in front of you, then take a short break that sets your mind on something else. The aim is to keep moving. Keep your brain ticking by reading, going for a walk or cooking. Something that keeps your mind and body on its toes, but that allows you to rest from your original activity.

A Room of One’s Own: Creating space for the mind.

Be mindful of choice. Be conscious of pain. Let in the deluge of thought.

The virtue of one’s own company is a forgotten therapy in today’s society. Spending time alone is something that is feared, rather than embraced. The demands of daily life – crippling work schedules, relationships, finances, the modern necessity to be sociable – reduces our ability to spend time alone and, in my view, restricts our ability to be objective about our lives. There is much to be gained from solitude.

To crudely quote Virginia Woolf, having ‘a room of one’s own’, having space both mentally and physically, is absolutely essential within my daily life. I would go as far as to say that my mental health absolutely depends upon it. Since moving to Berlin, I have been privileged enough to be temporarily distanced from the anxieties of modern life. My brain has finally stopped ticking. I walked along the pavement this morning with no real destination in mind and felt myself increasingly aware of my surroundings. For once, I could hear the birds sing.

I like to see spending time alone as a time to put myself back together, to declutter the space in my brain. Psychologically clearing away residual thoughts in the mind is as necessary to me as chucking out old, unused possessions in my home. Solitude has long been associated with loneliness where it should be associated with freedom. Solitude can be a practice for long-term mental health.

My most productive musings have often occurred when I have been alone in unfamiliar surroundings. Perspective on life can sometimes be found by taking a step out of our usual environment. Empathy was often described to me as a child as ‘understanding what it is like to be in another’s shoes’. Perhaps having empathy with ourselves involves stepping out of our own shoes once in a while and stepping back into them with renewed clarity.

Psychologically switching off

The mind is a muscle. It needs to be exercised, stretched, challenged, but it also needs time to rest. The brain is the same.

When we are so used to being permanently stimulated, it can be hard to sit still for too long.

My mum often reminds me about the fact that, unlike most babies, I learned to stand before even learning to sit up. She uses this as an analogy for me now. I never complete one task without starting another. I flit from one thing to the next. I anxiously worry about the future rather than the present.

I never give myself time to just be.

And this is what all of us do. We stand before we can sit. We run before we can walk.

We are the generation of immediacy. Things happen at the click of a button. If only it were just as easy to click ‘off’ in our minds.

Unplug and live for now

When I am restless I like to walk, aimlessly. This reminds me that I don’t always have to have a plan. Perhaps my message is entirely banal, but I speak with the sincerity of experience.

I highly prize the virtue of being disconnected.

Tiziano Terzani cherished self-reliance, writing that ‘The only real teacher is not in a forest, or a hut or an ice cave in the Himalayas. It is within us.’ He preached of finding meaning and value in adversity and personal experience. Having time alone to mentally declutter has often proved to be the best antidote for me in periods of high anxiety.

Perhaps having a conversation with yourself may be the only therapy you need.

Finding my balance: My thoughts on temporarily uprooting.

‘And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul?’ – Mary Oliver, ‘Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches.’

I came across this poem recently and was intrigued by the wistful tone of its words. All the questions I’ve ever contemplated about life, the future, seemed to be encapsulated in every stanza. It seemed to dispel every negative thought I’d ever considered on these themes. And then, this line:

 ‘Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?’

Breathing. So natural. So necessary. Sustaining. Comfortable. Second nature. With the calling of ‘Listen’ I physically halted. Perhaps I was only breathing just a little, and not even noticing. I had become so comfortable in my life that every thought and action was undertaken completely independently of my mind. I had switched to autopilot.

Monotony, routine, is a killer to the creative soul, but is also the antidote to a person who, like myself, lacks in confidence. That’s not to say that I knock routine. I need it, in fact. But having too rigid a structure provided me with too much of a comfort blanket. My best ideas and decisions are often bred in the most unsettling of circumstances.

It got me thinking that a lot of people consider life to be linear. There’s only a certain time and place where things can be done. Travelling can only be done in your gap-year. Job changes can only occur once every decade. Children come after career. Years roll on. These are perhaps bad examples. Perhaps I sound like too much of a young vigilante. But why must we all walk this undeviating line? Surely there is room to stray from the path, go forwards, backwards, upwards, downwards.

My masterplan was to take a strategic sidestep.

Instead of just breathing a little I decided to inhale a whole host of dreams and ideas. I wanted to travel, but I realised that I was never going to be the backpacker to Thailand. Instead, I have arranged to live in Berlin for six months, perhaps longer. It was art, lifestyle, language, literature that I was craving, and what better place for this than an international hub of culture like the German capital.

I’ve always been an over-analyser. I drive myself and my friends mad with my tendency to kill every good situation with my scrutinising eye. I realise that a lot of this sense of caution has been cultivated in me since I was a child.

Things can get heavy when too long at home. After graduating from University and moving back to the family home, I found myself becoming embroiled in circumstances that I could not change and it weighed heavily upon me. We all have our shackles and it is hard to know how onecan shed them, or even if we should. I found that I was always wearing the name of someone else upon my lips which prevented me from forming any articulate idea about my own future plans. I don’t want to escape, I just want to carve out a little mental space for myself.

I decided in the New Year that I no longer want to live a life poised in fear and apprehension. I titled this blog, ‘Finding my balance’ and this is what I intend to do to move forward. Help to relieve the burdens of others without being crushed under the weight of them. Acknowledge negativity but not be overthrown by it. Be disciplined, not obsessional. Labour for love of others, and for myself afterwards, but then learn to relax.

Berlin is about me fashioning my own narrative and taking control of my own circumstances. I needed something different, something inspiring. This is me seeking out the extent of my strength and capability, learning more about myself in the hope that I’ll be more certain of my future by the time that I return.

I am blessed every day for the life I lead and for the people I have around me, and this is what will bolster me for the months ahead. I hope to find myself in six month’s time with a renewed sense of positivity. My faith in life is still unfaltering.

I am still searching for what it is that truly motivates and excites me. My blog is called ‘Finding my Muse’ because that’s what I am doing: in life and in words.

#lifestyle #culture #personal

#DailyLife

A Short Anecdote

This morning was miserable. I was feeling particularly sorry for myself as I stood on the platform, drenched and already drained of any fervour for the day ahead. While sat in the carriage, gazing drearily out the window, wishing the cyclist next to me would move the wheel of his bike unobtrusively from the side of my thigh, I overheard a conversation. A lady, who by the sounds of it had been the subject of infidelity by her husband, said ‘but you’ve got to laugh.’ She had to laugh to make light of the situation, to release herself, momentarily, from pain, to protect herself from the judging, yet kind, eyes of the spectator opposite her.

And this is why we laugh, I thought. We laugh to forget the cares of the world. We laugh to remind ourselves that we still live, and breathe, and hurt. We have a heart beating still, reverberating in our chests, beneath the layers of our paper skin.