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!

J is for January / S is for Skylark!

It is the last day of January and I haven’t written since before C is for Christmas!

B is for Bother! Oh dear – what to do?

It is no coincidence that a new year has brought changes. I have to fess up. The truth is, that I found myself writing almost “to order” (I know: I had barely got out of the starter’s blocks) and when I caught myself bashing out this rather tidy, trite piece, I threw down my pen in disgust. What I had so enjoyed in rediscovering my voice, I then began to lose because I was spending so long in polishing and packaging it for the reader. I lost sight of the reason for writing in the first place. In a sense, the important healing work was done long before I posted anything. I had enjoyed about 6 weeks of bashing out text from the heart – it was like unstopping a spring and I was literally euphoric. Friends couldn’t believe the change in me. But once it was mostly out on the page, the catharsis drew to a close and I had a sense that it was time to move on.

I want to keep this real and honest, I do not want to keep writing around a subject that currently does not still grip me. It might have changed me and the way I see things, but my soul is not full of the cancer journey; I would rather write from the heart, than keep plodding on to complete all 26 letters of the alphabet from duty. (Needless to say, if any literary agent out there comes up with an agreeable package, I might be persuaded to finish it)! Instead, in the meantime, I find myself reading, watching and thinking about the stuff that I have always been captivated by; nature and sometimes, a little bit of design.

I woke up the other day and realised that all the books on my bedside are to do with either gardens, garden design or nature or lives steeped in any or all of the above. And I thought back to conversations in my childhood and youth and realised that it was always thus. I have clear memories of talking to friends while I marvelled at what the clouds were doing, or how a particular tree could lift my spirits and being surprised to find out that these had no effect on them whatsoever! Anyway, it so happened that the very same day my dear sister popped round (not an amazing act of divine intervention, I hasten to add, she lives 10 minutes away and is always popping in) and asked me if I had written anything yet. I told her that I would rather write about “B is for Bringing in the Bulbs” (to replace the Christmas decs)! than carry on with the “C if for Cancer”, but that I also felt duty bound to plod on with it. Largely this due to an overweening sense of duty, a weird, obsessive need to finish something I have started. Also, tragically, it is partly predicated on the basis that I have mentioned here before: namely that my CV looks like a bad day in the old BHS pick ‘n’ mix and I am terrified of talking about and starting yet another idea and not bringing it through to fruition. I am embarrassed and mortified at the thought that I might be, as it turns out, one of those of our species whom I find particularly hard to respect: that is, a “chat merchant”. And as I had mentioned to friends that in my head was this book, “A is for Apple” made up of 26 chapters of inspiring, surprising and funny things that no one told you about cancer, in a desperate need to justify myself I felt I ought to plough on and finish the bally thing… Anyway, I am sure you get the point. I am now repeating myself. Sorry.

What is interesting was that Helen then said that only that morning she wished someone wrote a collection of seasonal nature sketches or reflections, as she was much more likely to read that at the moment than she was anything else! A bit more chat ensued and she confessed that my writing had become a bit more, well, formulaic and frankly, dull. It was too tidy and not from the gut. “Sorry,” she said, “you probably need feedback like a hole in the head!”

Then last week we met up with some dear friends, and likewise, when I fessed up to not having written yet this year and my perceived dilemma, Nicola then piped up (and I love her for this – she is more concerned with being truthful than liked) and agreed rather promptly with Helen!

Right, well if my sister and a dear, loyal friend think that, then who am I to hesitate?

And so now I shall tell you what little gems were strewn on my path today to give me the final kick up the rear to do this thing…

The first is a frankly cheesy little nugget that my eldest daughter had written on a piece of kitchen towel in her lovely calligraphy – here goes:

There is freedom for you, waiting in the breezes of the sky;

You say, “What if I fall?”

I say, “What if you fly?”

Well, I did warn you.

Then the other thing that happened was on my walk with our dog, Bramble. Having waiting as long as I could, trying to avoid the persistent rain, we ventured out into the field and squelched our way round the meadow. The pregnant ewes were tidily gathered at one end eating the nuts that Farmer Fred had drizzled out for them. This gave us, and particularly Bramble, most of the space to stretch her legs… And what was took me completely by surprise on such a day, and at such a time of year, was to be loudly greeted by the song of more than one skylark. Oh my word! How can they, on such a day, lift up from their soggy “nest” and ascend in this thick low cloud, all the while pouring out song as if their hearts and lungs would burst? I was shocked, then moved (hearing skylarks always moves me), and then I saw by way of contrast, my own fear and poverty of spirit.

Well if they can do it then it is about time I gave it another bash… time for another attempt at lift off… and so here we are.

I have just looked up George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. It is the poem that inspired Vaughan Williams’ piece of the same name. It is glorious, but it is also too long to quote here… having said that, I cannot refrain from quoting a few corkers from it:

For singing till his heaven fills,

“’T is love of earth that he instils,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup,

And he the wine which overflows

To lift us with him as he goes”…

…”He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;

The wedding song of sun and rains

He is, the dance of children, thanks

Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,

And eye of violets while they breathe;

All these the circling song will wreathe” …

Somehow, he captures the heady exhilaration of the song – to hear skylarks is to drink pure sunlight. You can’t tell what senses are being stirred: is it your heart, your memory, your spirit, all three? Well that’s what it does for me… And I don’t think I have ever heard them in the rain before. We have always had them here but I only recall hearing them when the skies are clear and also only from early spring to end of autumn. What a treat!

Rather wonderfully, if you track down the poem to the same website as me, you will also be thrilled to find a link to help you with your dodgy knees. I didn’t know that surfing the web or reading poetry was such a physically demanding activity, but there you have it.

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If you are not lucky enough to have skylarks singing outside your back door, the thing to do in January is to pot up bulbs: some to give away and some to keep. I have to say that even after many years of doing this (always after my post-Christmas clear out), I still have mixed results: sometimes the bulbs grow tall and leggy as if reaching for the sun, sometimes they barely have any stem and poke their heads out of the soil, with no neck!

But it doesn’t matter.

The best bit is seeing the buds appear, however high or low, full of promise of scent and colour and life, surrounded by the freshest pulled moss – all frothy and green and spring-like. I also poke in pretty winter stems between the bulbs – to give a framework to support them if they have a leggy tendency, but also to have something to look at while they emerge.

Just because of what I can scrump around here I tend to use the pretty pussy willow sticks with fluffy white buds, or hazel twigs with promising dangly flowers – these look fab when you cut them in the young pale stage and then really annoyingly, they elongate and drop clouds of yellow pollen. Every year I tell myself not to use them but every year I succumb… and then a week later regret it! Doh!

Finally, and I should have said this at the beginning, I always cheat.

Obviously. Who has success with bags of bulbs in dark cupboards? In the dim and distant past I was naive enough to try this, but was sabotaged by three very persistent enemies: woolly memory (I either forgot where I had put them or indeed that I had put them anywhere), mice and shrews (favourite winter snack is a stash of flower bulbs kept in mint condition in a brown paper bag in a handy, dark, undisturbed but accessible corner) and finally, mould, which quite often you find you have thrown in for free by the vendor! So now I buy my bulbs in the green – with clear and present shoots already up and at it – almost always from Steve our local market florist. On a good day, Steve will sell me 2 pots with 3 hyacinth bulbs in each for £5.00. I then either divide them up and put them in individual cups or glasses for the bedrooms or gifts, or stash them together in one large, indulgent bowl for the kitchen table. I buy loads of different bulbs: narcissi, hyacinth or mascari and store them outside in a sheltered spot by the back door. I then pot them up and bring them in as I have “need” or fancy!

Also, while I am on my January riff, finding alternative bulb containers is a whole new source of excitement, innovation and joy. Raiding charity shops at this time of year is always a good hobby, even if the irony of bringing stuff back into the house, from the very location where you have smugly deposited three full bin liners, completely eludes you! My recent such acquisition is a copper whisking bowl, which is looking glorious with its frothy family of white hyacinth. And, if I am letting you have ALL my family secrets, then muscari – those pretty little blue grape hyacinth bulbs – look absolutely delicate and charming in the pale blue glasses that we bought in IKEA just over a year ago. What is so pleasing is that these glasses have a low “waist” just where you can, and must, tie round a pretty ribbon – January bliss!

Tips on how to pot up bulbs:

If you are putting them in glass, wash the soil from the roots and stand them over clean washed gravel in the base of the glass. If you are putting them in a ceramic or metal planter of some kind, still put a layer of gravel in the base then shake the potting compost from them over the top to re-sit the roots in. Whatever the nature of your container, pull up moss from the soggy shady corners of your garden and push around the bulbs. Spritz with water from an old window cleaner bottle that you have thoroughly washed and re-washed. This keeps the moss looking lush and fresh. Occasionally you might need to run under a v gentle tap then carefully tip out excess water.

NB: Bulbs, just like cut flowers, will last a lot longer if your room is cool. (This is not a positive attribute in our house. Now that Mr B has found a local and relentless supply of firewood, the wood-burning stove is always lit, and so roughly from November to April, we find ourselves by the end of the evening, not too infrequently, walking around in our undies)!

And on that note, may I wish you a very Happy New Year!

PS I can promise that the next post will NOT be this long. I was going to leave this one at the Lark, but felt I ought to include the bulbs!