C is for Cheese

 

C is really for Connection, but that is way too cheesy…

In my heady A level English days I wrote knowingly about love and life and could rustle up a fairly decent 2000 worder of a Saturday, pinning down existential questions with great confidence and no hint of irony or a shadow of doubt. “Only connect!” I urged the reader, quoting from E M Forster, one of my writing heroes of the day…

More recently, and with considerably more doubt and not a little irony, I went to a training day equipping delegates to run a marriage support course! In fact it was pretty impressive. It was written by leading clinical psychologists with a life time of experience in the field, and compelling research and results. The conference was hosted by a friend who has run 5 such courses and is so impressed by the results she just wanted to get as many people on board running similar courses in their own neighbourhoods as possible. In the course of the introduction to the basic principles, we saw some absolutely devastating video clips. One was of a toddler whose mother was asked by the academic researcher not to respond to her child. No smiling, talking, or even facial expressions – just stare blankly… The child tried every tactic in the book to get a response: cooing, waving her arms, pointing, gurgling, smiling, then increasingly panic-stricken she shrieked, flapped and contorted her body in frustration to get some kind of response from the mother. It was the most uncomfortable viewing… It was a relief to hear the consultant give the signal to release the mother back to her fully engaged self, in order to soothe and calm her child.

The second video clip was of an old woman who had become isolated by dementia and who gave no apparent response to those around her. And yet, given time, attention, gentle hand-holding, singing and very sensitive and insightful interaction with someone who knew her past, she eventually broke out of her “lock down” and joined in singing the words of a well-known song from her childhood. It was excruciatingly sad, beautiful and an absolute kick in the guts.

The point that was being so well made is one that is so obvious and staring us in the face that we mostly forget it; we are made for connection. Regardless of age and stage, intellect or education, we have a deep human need and desire to connect with each other. To be disconnected, lonely or isolated is clearly an aberration and deeply upsetting, in fact it is nothing short of malady or illness.

And yet, clearly, I struggle with it. Writing, that is. In fact, I am only here at this desk because my eldest daughter wrote me a letter, which I found on my pillow, bless her, (probably the place where I give my best attention) telling me in no uncertain terms to get back in the saddle. She is living at home so could have had a conversation, but she wisely recognised that I am probably more receptive to the written word! She very kindly and wisely explained that it is not about the results but about the journey and that this is what I clearly enjoy doing. She explained that I needed to pick up the pen for all our sakes, as I am more fun to be around when I am writing and most importantly, apparently my standards of catering are also dramatically elevated!

The trouble is I find that I am my harshest critic and my own worst accuser. I am all too easily disqualified and disenfranchised. I read books by brilliant authors who seem to have already explained or described all that needs saying, which makes anything I want to say redundant (and in my pride – big mistake in general – I have no desire to be a mere footnote). Another hamstringing weakness is that I compare myself (big mistake, that, on every level) with other people who have thousands following their snapchat or twitter accounts, or hear about those who get their books published in their gap years and think “Who am I kidding?” I see bookshops lined with books and the internet full of words, magazines pouring out columns every month and newspapers spewing out literally millions of words every day. I am damned if I do (because of my obscurity) or damned if I don’t (dodgy, boring food and generally very frustrated, angry and bored). I get undone by either my lack of success on the one hand, or the scale and the apparent inefficacy of it all. Surely, anything that needs to be said, has already been said! Has all this talking, twittering, writing and publishing really made a difference?

But, how silly of me. I forget. It is not about the results; we communicate because we are human. In the way that bees ceaselessly visit flowers for their nectar, red kites soar, and skylarks sing fit to burst, we humans have a need to connect. That is the point behind all the art, all the music, all the stories, all the chat, all the songs and all the print… that is a much more positive (if frankly, slightly cheesy) outlook on all this media noise!

And yet, more people are living alone than ever before.

Real connection has to involve flesh and blood, doesn’t it? Virtual or intellectual connection is definitely better than none, but ultimately it only goes so far. Looking back at those video clips, the absolute physical need – whether it was the 2 year old or the 92 year old – was for a present, responsive, and known loved one, up close and personal. As a friend who lives alone simply put it, “I hate coming back to an empty house”.

I have joined a team of amazing volunteers who run an after-school youth group in our local market town. We have been turning up every Friday – or every other, in my case, for the last year, making smoothies, playing Wii, table tennis, and all sorts of other activities. And yet, while it could be an accumulative factor of earning trust, it only just started to really gel when we played a game of “Dish the Dirt”. We found out gory or fun facts about each member of the team, read out the list and then challenged the young people to find out whom we were referring to. Who took out their wheelie bins in the buff? Who had broken what three times? Whose grandfather was sentenced to death? Who tried smuggling tins of meat into America? And my favourite: Who got locked out of their house by a gust of wind, wearing only a cropped T-shirt?… (All true, by the way. Who would have thought Little Snoring was so colourful?!) It was brilliant. Firstly they had to co-operate with each other as no one could remember the long list. Then they had to actually talk to each member of the team and get to know their names. Then they raced the other groups to come back with a completed list. But what was even better was the fact that the kids so got into it that they actually asked if they could turn the tables and do their own. So they then ran round all the other kids, got a tasty little morsel of dirt on each of them and asked us helpers to find out whom they were referring to… At last it felt like the barriers were coming down, and we really were connecting. We sat around talking happily about the funny ones and listening with eyes on stalks to the stories of homelessness…

Mother Teresa spoke about the greatest diseases in the West today being those of loneliness, despair and hopelessness. She diagnosed a spiritual poverty and prescribed love. E M Forster put it more succinctly, but was heading in a similar direction.

If I can make a contribution it will be to get people to write and tell their own stories… that has to be a good place to start.

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POST SCRIPT

I know only too well, that connection gets complicated, especially when the stakes are high, which presumably, is why successful marriages are as rare as hen’s teeth. And herein lies the rub. We are made to connect. But we are also rough and chipped. We have this huge drive to connect, but a whole shed-load of baggage which can mar and twist what and how we communicate and perceive. Perhaps as humans, our greatest fear is that we get to reveal all, only to be rejected. So we do this weird dance where we partly reveal and then withdraw, wanting to trust but never fully opening up. We end up preferring to guard our heart and keeping a form of separation rather than risking sheer vulnerability to keep a connection. To be fully known and fully loved, aaah, that is the goal…!

In a rough, layman’s terms, what this course did so brilliantly was provide you as a couple with a guide to developing safe emotional connection; it ushers you through the ¬†quagmires where you find yourselves getting “stuck”, and it equips you with the skills to maintain and nurture your relationship, whatever life throws at you. If you like the sound of that check out “Created for Connection”, I am sure someone is running a course not too far from you! Now if there is a similar course for aspirational writers, along with a support group for those lacking in confidence, I am all ears!