Identity and Truth

Seneca writes:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long by Maria Popova

I recently embarked on a memoir writing course and have been trawling through the various stages of my life, the events that took place and the hold they have over me. On paper my life looks rich in source material—plenty of births, deaths, significant changes, angst, loss etc—but what does it all add up to in terms of Seneca’s definition? Have all the failed relationships, mistakes, disruptions, lack of control, blind alleys, nervous breakdowns and self-sabotaging been a waste? I don’t think so. They have forged me into who I am and the writer in me uses these experiences to inform my work, create ‘real’ characters and situations, empathize with them and hopefully enable readers to understand their motivations and flaws.

David Foster Wallace puts it perfectly in: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write:

“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

So what is my Truth? And what does it have to do with identity?

When we create characters we need them to be identifiably different from the others and use various techniques to do this—‘voice’, what they say, what they do, what is said about them, what they wear, what they carry and so on. We create a back story for them, invent life events, family members, mannerisms, education, likes and dislikes, music preferences etc, anything that will fix them in our minds so that we can psychologically motivate them. Most of that stuff never appears in our stories but we need it to create a ‘truth’ for the character. By providing an identity and personality for them they become real to us. We know them intimately, they speak to us, take us in directions we didn’t think we’d go, fall in love with unsuitable people and start to have a life of their beyond the pages.

When I was creating the character of Grace in my first novel I was drawing on an event that had stuck in my mind when my children were small. A two-year-old boy was abducted on the island of Kos when in the care of his grandmother and I wondered how the child’s mother could ever forgive her own mother. This ‘what if’ became the starting point for the story and the character of Grace was created through my own experiences; she was about the same age as me, had a difficult relationship with her daughter and had mental health problems. The similarities ended there but were a springboard for other ideas until Grace lived with me and even slept with me at night. Drawing on deeply personal experiences I can vouch for the ‘truth’ of her, but she isn’t me; I am me.

Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897) says:

 “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”

Looking at my life experiences it may seem as if I have lived a life of wasted opportunities but in Seneca’s terms, writing is a way of me having a long life because I now know “how to use it”.

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Trust

Never trust the artist. Trust the tale” D.H. Lawrence Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) Ch 1

I empathize with the above quote but for me the issue of trust goes much deeper and is one of the biggest issues I have to deal with. Ever since I can remember I have been unable to take things people said or did on trust. I’m a kinaesthetic learner first, visual learner second and a practically non-existent aural learner. “Don’t touch that, it’s hot” never deterred me from sticking my fingers into a fire nor did “That’s too high, you’ll fall” stop me from tree climbing or walking along the edge of high walls. I only learnt when something bad happened and unfortunately, for all my years and vast experience of ‘bad’ happenings, I’m still the same. Basically I don’t trust people unless I’ve learnt to over a period of time, and trust what they tell me when it has been put to the test and proven.

Lovers and teachers found me an absolute pain and my ‘Yes, but…’ comments infuriating. If only I didn’t have to have proof all the time I’m sure I’d be a much happier individual. Yet I do trust books. Not newspapers, just books. I trust that the writer has integrity and is expressing an opinion or a truth, even if I don’t agree with that opinion or have a different notion of what the truth is. I find this aspect of myself fascinating. I don’t know where the faith comes from but it has never wavered.

Recently I’ve had a relapse of a medical condition I have that has resulted in my searching (again) for answers. Not just about the condition but why I have it, why it has come back, what my emotional attachment to it is and what I can do about it. If you don’t believe that your physical condition is linked to your emotional state then you probably haven’t read the books I have, or been convinced by them, and are probably wondering what all this has to do with trust, unless it’s trust in the medical profession and drug regimes.

I think that when some people, particularly women, have problems they search for answers and look to others who have survived similar experiences to provide them with hope. I’ve been reading about a near death experience in “Dying To Be Me” by Anita Moorjani and believe every word she says about her out of body experience and being cured of cancer. From the e-mails and feedback she’s received she has obviously helped a lot of people but this is where my ‘Yes, but…’ always comes in. I intellectually trust her words, but because I have not had the same experience I cannot emotionally commit to what she tells me about my own magnificence and connection to Source. I want to have her emotional security and knowledge. I want to have relationships with people that are positive and loving. I want to be able to trust myself and my judgement as well as others but a near death experience is a bit of a drastic way of enabling me to do that. I guess I’m just a ‘Doubting Thomas’ and may never be able to let go of my fears of not being good/worthy enough, being made a fool of, of being wrong. And that, I find, is incredibly sad.

I’ve tried religion, alternative therapies, retreats, holistic therapies, neural linguistic programming – you name it, I’ve tried it. Intellectually they all did a lot for me and for varying periods of time. But my core has remained relatively untouched and I face the same problems again and again, with nothing really being resolved. So this time round I’m trying to just accept that I’m a flawed individual who tries too hard looking for answers ‘out there’ when all the time I know them already. I have to ‘trust the tale’ of my life and heal the bits that got broken along the way. I may need help, but I’m the only one who can do it. And that, for me, is the first step towards trust.

 

Harvests

A couple of weeks ago I set off early for a walk and met a couple of friends on their way to hunt wild garlic for making pesto. I wished then luck and carried on my way. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, the church bells were calling the faithful to prayer, the air was warming up but still retained a sharpness on my bare arms and the birds seemed to be delirious in their acrobatic antics high in the sky. As I made my way past well-tended gardens I was greeted by the scent of mimosa and vivid colours of magenta, cerise, orange and yellow. Drifts of cherry blossom were disturbed by my passing and hawthorn hedgerows were covered in sweet-scented may blossom.

Towards the river the houses thinned and I passed through the edge of woods where the last of the daffodills nodded and bluebells and forget-me-nots sheltered beneath the trees. I stopped at a small bridge where the river cascades over rocks and has ground out a small cup shape in one of the rocks below, where people throw coins for good luck. The day was magnificent and i let the brown breath of the river wash over me. Further on I passed fields and an old churchyard where huge crumbling Victorian gravestones sit and rooks perch above on branches. This used to be a favourite place when I first moved to the area because I love graveyards and reading headstones to find out about the people wo lived and died there.

I took the path down across the suspension bridge, found a seat and turned my face up to the sun. Relaxing, I let my mind drift as I allowed my other senses to take over from my eyes. After a while my mind returned to the garlic hunt and how many natural harvests we have here in the form of free food. I collect garlic for salads and cooking, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, loganberries and boysenberries for jams and chutneys, apples for cider and apple jelly, and lots of friends collect the sloes for gin but I’ve still to master that one. So much abundance on our doorstep, so much to be grateful for.

But there are other harvests I’m grateful for. That day, with its cornflower-blue skies and golden sunlight, is one of many I harvest in order to commit to memory so I can draw down and use later, like the fruits I turn into jam. On dark days, when depression or rain threatens, I pull them up, spread them over me and remember that all things pass. But all things are also useful, if we know what to do with them.

From page to screen

I went to the cinema last night to see The Railway Man and was once again disappointed that the film lacked integrity or any loyalty to the book. It’s bad enough when film-makers change endings and characters of novels, but when they do it to autobiographies it’s somehow shameful, as if they’ve set themselves up as God and decided what someone’s life story should have been like. I know it coverd itself by having Based on a true story under the title, I think Eric Lomax, who died in 2012, would have been very unhappy with their version.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer attached to the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, who was caught up in the war at the time of the surrender of Singapore. He was marched to the infamous Changi Prison, along with the rest of the soldiers captured. From there he was sent to Thailand to work on the infamous Burma-Siam railway. As an engineer he escaped the crippling jobs of digging out of rocks and laying tracks that ended the lifes of thousands and thousands soldiers and captive Indonesians, but life for him was not easy. He was tortured and humiliated by his Japanese captors and after his liberation he suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of his guards, Takashi Nagase, acted as interpreter for his torturers and this man is the one that Lomax focussed all his hatred upon. He was the one constant in his life, the voice that spoke to him during the torture, the voice and face that stayed with him in his nightmares. But what the film fails to do it to show that Nagase was also troubled by his memories of the war and the Imperial Army’s treatment of prisoners. His disturbing memories featured a young British officer whom he helped interrogate and whose bravery and refusal to break haunted him.

After the end of World War II, Nagase became a devout buddhist priest and tried to atone for the treatment of prisoners of war. Takashi has made more than 100 missions of atonement to the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, which was also built by prisoner-of-war labour. Nagase, like Lomax, also wrote a book of his own experiences during and after the war entitled Crosses and Tigers, and he financed a buddhist temple at the bridge to atone for his actions during the war.

The reconciliation of the men did not occur when Lomax went to Thailand to kill Nagase following the suicide of a friend. For years Lomax had dreamt of ways of killing his tormentor, to end his nightmares and to lay the war and all its horrors to rest. But PTSD is not something that easily goes away by itself and eventually Lomax sought help from The Medical Foundation (now entitled Freedom from Torture). He was the first British citizen to receive their help and it was through their support and the admisitrations of his second wife, Patti, that he was able to make the journey to Thailand and meet his old nemesis. The men became friends and died within a year of each other.

I think what I dislike most about the film, apart from re-writing Lomax’s life, is the complete denial of the intervention of The Medical Foundation, as if to seek help from an organization is somehow less worthy, less manly, than struggling through your demons on your own. Just look at how we have historically treated soldiers with PTSD, most notably during WW1 when we shot them for cowardice, but each generation up to modern-day has abused its victims by denying the condition exists or witholding treatment. It has been seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice to ask for help but slowly the army is recognizing that it owes its soldiers this help and support. Then along comes this film which ignores the valuable help Lomax was given in favour of providing the audience with the gung-ho image of a tortured man who heals himself. Yes, he was tortured, yes he healed himself, but he was enough of a hero to recognize when he needed help and asked for it, despite the stigma attached to this. He also recognized and showed us that war damages people on both sides. And that, to me, is the unltimate heroic act.

 

Don’t sing that song again

I’ve been rummaging through my old CDs and playing them in the car, reliving the times and memories they evoke. The love affairs, the music festivals, longings, excitments and disppointment. But it this a good thing?

Songs, smells, sounds all have embedded themselves inside the part of my brain that serves as memory but they trap with them the powerful emotions, fears and feelings I experienced at the time. I’ve always loved a trip down Nostalgia Lane, coloured as it is with rose-coloured people and pristine buildings. I’m aware of the reality of the past but have often chosen a sanitized version rather than  see the shadows. It’s not good to dwell on the things you can’t change so let’s pretend they didn’t happen, right? Some people agree with this but lately I’ve been trying to open myself more and in doing so I’ve come to question all of the presumptions and ‘givens’ I believe in.

I think each person must make their own decisions about what is right or wrong for them. I’m not a follower of any particular creed or philosophy. I’m a bit of an eclectic, grabbing bits from here and there that work for me, so nothing I say is ever intended to be a recipe for other people to follow unless they want to stop over and rest before travelling on. For over 60 years I’ve tried to find something that makes perfect sense. A set of ideals that resonate and stop me striving for more answers. That hasn’t happened, but what has happened is that over those years I’ve evolved my own way of coping and moving forward, but it’s often included carrying a wound that won’t heal. I’ve reached a point now where I want to question and undermine everything that has kept me safe so far. Why?

I think it’s because I’ve grown sick of fear, of old songs and old explanations of why I am the way I am. What does it matter? A great deal, I suppose if I’m trying to work out how to interact with someone, to understand my reactions to them and their behaviours. But if I boil everything down to its lowest common denominator in the ‘now’ then we’re all just people, doing our best, often in very difficult circumstances. The past only owns us when we let it and to keep telling our same stories or singing our same songs keeps us trapped there.

I’m not saying I’m going to forget or never listen to old CDs but what I am going to do is listen, enjoy them then let them go; it’s the hanging on that causes the problems. I may need to be able to draw on the feelings and tensions in order to create authentic characters in my writing but I also need to be able to let them go when they outlive their usefulness. When the day draws to a close, it’s all about balance. And hope.

Can’t buy me love

It’s New Year’s Eve and thoughts automatically turn to a review of the past year and what has been achieved. On the writing front I’ve been really busy and had several poems and a short story published. My second novel, which is still to place, has been critiqued and I’ve started a third. I’ve been actively sending my work out, shrugging off any rejections and feel a lot more grounded in self-belief. There will always be areas I can improve but I’m pleased with my progress and the fact I don’t let criticism destroy me anymore.

My home life keeps me on my toes and my health, apart from a dodgy hip, is probably the best it’s been for years. I’ve been able to have more work done on the house to make it warm this winter and have replaced a couple of old settees to enhance my comfort. It’s all been good. So what’s missing?

When I worked in Nepal and on my travels in developing countries I was always impressed by the incredibly happy outlook of people who had nothing. They never worried about whether their clothes matched some fashion dictate, or whether their body shapes were in vogue. They didn’t seem to agonize over whether their partner loved them or if they were worthy of love. I suppose when you are stripped to basics and survival is your main concern, then those other things are luxuries you can’t afford. Now I’ve got a new career going, have a home I can be safe, warm and comfortable in, I’ve no more excuses; it’s time to look at the area of my life I do any displacement activity to avoid addressing. Love.

Those who have followed my blogs know that I haven’t been particularly successful in that area and that the way I deal with being unsuccessful is to either bash away with my head, or run away. The latter is easiest. I’ll take lots of risks with my body but am a real wuss when it comes to my heart. I’d rather give up desire than risk rejection so have settled into a very pleasant ‘safe’ existence where I can and do anything I want without having to explain myself or make compromises. It always seemed a win/win situation to me. And yet…

Lately the old yearning has surfaced, that feeling of desire for intimate communication between bodies and souls, where connections are forged that can take me to the realms of the divine. The heat and static on skin that electifies the slightest touch and can take me to another dimension. The meeting of minds that seems to expand intellect yet at the same time makes space for the trivial minutae of life, recognizing it’s implicit importance in the great scheme of things. There is so much more than I am currently experiencing. It may be blasphemous, but for me meditation can only provide so much. I’m having a human experience that is enhanced by contact with Spirit but perhaps it’s another human being who can be a more successful channel to that contact. And maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I remember reading Milton’s Paradise Lost at university and loving his portayal of Satan and Adam. His Adam is not the gullible soul sometimes portayed in anti-feminist religious writings. He knows what Eve has done is wrong but his love for her is so strong that he chooses to follow Eve and be damned with her rather than live in Eden without her. I’m not good at deferred gratification so I would choose like Adam for the ‘now’ of Eve rather than the ‘later’ of what life might be like without her. Love is one of our strongest motivating emotions and to live without it is limiting. With 2014 approaching it’s time for resolutions so I’m send out to the Universe my desire to be open in mind and heart to all opportunities and I’ll see where that takes me. Wherever it is, it’ll be an exciting journey, with or without a companion.

 

Mid-winter

It’s the dark time, a time of shadows, half-light and grey skies. Icy winds sweep over the hills and flurries of snowflakes attach themselves to grass and bracken. It’s a time for building fires, blocking draughts and storytelling, a time of tradition and rememberance. As I slide towards the mid-point of the year I’m increasingly aware of the shadows, of empty spaces and the loss of those who’ve gone before. I feel the distant, depleted energy of previous life forces and the emptiness inside where once I was filled. Yet, unusually for me, I do not struggle against this natural ebb and flow of energy, I accept that this is how things are, this is how things are meant to be. There is a peace in letting go, which today has become as natural  as shedding leaves. It’s time to wait, to settle down, pull in strengths and sleep in order to get ready for the spring awakening. Soon the days will lengthen, the earth will burst with new life and hearts will beat just that little bit faster. But for now, I wait and remember…

I recently watched Water for Elephants and remembered that awkwardness and excitement of falling in love for the first time. The hesitation and uncertainty that I wouldn’t know enough or be good enough to please, but the quickening of breath and electrified skin that over-rode the doubts. The tenderness and concern, the feelings of invincibility and that nothing would ever change. Such precious naivety, such a shame it didn’t last.

I remember falling in love again after my divorce and feeling that this time, things would be different. They were. Naivety had been replaced by cynicism and mis-trust; tenderness and concern slept with one eye open and a hand on the door. What should have been a coming together eventually became a battle-plan of escape routes, digging trenches and erecting electrified fences. Now I feel an overwhelming tenderness for the potential that was lost, for the girl with dreams and quickened breath. She’s come a long way and I’m proud of her.

I wrote this poem a while ago and it was a finalist in Poetic Republic’s MAG poetry competition 2011.

 

Echoes of You

 

Echoes of you visited me today

in the rain whispering at my window.

 

Cats’ paws of wind chasing leaves

 

in the garden uncovered shadows of your smile

 

and the nothing around me turned cold.

 

 

 

Last week, light pricking through lace

 

curtains of air carried smells of sex,

 

and night, bumping against bricks,

 

left sounds of your laughter, splintering

 

the surface of my sleep.

 

 

 

This morning I found beads of dreams

 

abandoned under the kitchen sink.

 

I cannot bring myself to tidy them away

 

so leave them for spiders to play with

 

and return to my cobwebbed existence.

 

I’m pleased to announce Mrs Haversham has dusted off her cobwebs, has settled down in front of the fire and is patiently waiting for spring.