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”.



It’s been an unsettling few days for me, more so than usual. I’m always unsettled as a year ends and new beginnings are on the horizon but this year’s run up to Xmas, the death of Nelson Mandela and illness of friends has knocked me a little sideways. My thoughts have been going deeper to identify the cause of this, always a risky thing to do because I never know what’s going to pop up. Those of you who have read my blogs know that one of the issues I struggle with is unworthiness. I know where those feelings come from and also know that they generate fears that affect and determine my thoughts and actions, but what to do about them?

For as long as I can remember I have been afraid. I was afraid of the dark, of heights, of being submerged in water, of tight places, bees/wasps, spiders etc etc. Some of these fears were generated by actual events, others were just irrational phobias. I’ve learnt over the years to recognize that they were also really about something else; the fact that I feared rejection and never felt safe. We all learn coping strategies and most of mine have been to confront my fears head on. I now never put a light on in the house unless it’s necessary, I’ve climbed mountains, abseiled down waterfalls, been caving, windsurfing etc. I can pick spiders up and put them out of the house and sit still when a bee or wasp lands on me. But I’ve never really successfully confronted my fears of rejection or being safe.

There has been so much press celebrating the life of Mandela and his achievements, not only as a man, but as a black man in apartheid South Africa. What he went though for his beliefs, and then to come out the other end and recognize that in order for all the people of his country to move forward there has to be forgiveness and reconciliation, puts most of us to shame. All that time in prison, the beatings and torture, seeing good friends and family members tortured and killed, and yet he emerged as one of the greatest forces for peace, an elder statesman with a true heart and vision for letting go of the past, that the world has seen. If he can do all that after all he has been through, then why can’t I let go?

Obviously I’m no Nelson Mandela – you don’t get many of him to the pound. Yet he was human, like the rest of us and I’m sure he had his own dark days, was fearful at times and may have given up hope occasionally. But what struck me when I first read Long Road to Freedom was his capacity to put all that to one side and to see the best in people caught up in the political machine of the day, to love them enough to want to change the system for the betterment for them all. And for future generations.

Earlier this year I read Antji Krog’s Country of My Skull, which is a full account of the Truth Commission’s work in 1996-8 using testimonies of oppressed and oppressor about human rights violations committed between 1960-1993. It is a harrowing read. Yet the fact that people survived those years, and were able to draw on inner resources to keep moving forward, is an amazing monument to the enduring strength of the human spirit. I have never been tested in that way but doubt that I would be brave enough.

Of the two motivators – the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure – I’m a definite avoider. I don’t do things that might make me vulnerable or hurt and therefore feel envious of other people’s success when they have taken risks. I am ashamed of my mean-spiritedness but I own it because it is easier to accept than to acknowledge being afraid. I was bullied for a lot of years and perfected how to cover it up, to pretend everything was fine; it’s a habit that has stuck. But fear of rejection stops me wanting things, reaching for things, even enjoying them, and fears about my safety/security are no longer about my physical being but my emotional health. I’m not afraid to take risks with my physical being but steer far away from any emotional ones because my body heals much quicker than my soul. And therein lies the problem.

The last couple of weeks have caused me to reflect quite seriously about who I am and what I want from life. We never know how much time we have left but whatever it is, it’s never enough. I don’t want to waste my days only half living them, but the old fears of failure and rejection have been bubbling up just under the surface and I need to let them go. I’ve discovered to my delight that there are people around me who I can trust and lean on when I need to. My family have always been a good support but I don’t want them to worry about me, which they do already because they don’t live nearby. I also don’t ever want to be a burden to anyone – I used to worry about falling downstairs and not being found for days or weeks. Not because I’d die alone, but because someone else would have to clean up the mess! I bang on a lot about human rights but always about other people and their entitlements. What I’m learning is that they apply to me too. I have a right to be here; I’m just like other people, a basically nice person doing my best. I don’t need to put on a brave act because I am brave already. I’ve overcome much more than I give myself credit for and although I’m not a Nelson Mandela, that’s okay. I’m a Kriss Nichol and no-one else is like me either.


It’s my mam’s birthday today and she would have been 85. Already I am older than she was when she died and it’s quite a sobering thought. All that life left unlived, all those things she never got to do, people she never met. She and I had a difficult relationship that wasn’t softened by us both being stubborn. But in the later years, after I had my own children, we talked a lot more and I discovered a lot of things that then made sense to me about how she was and why she did the things she did. Which is probably why there’s at least one character in my novels who has mother/daughter problems.

The middle child of three girls my mother always felt unloved. The eldest girl got to leave home and work in London, whereas mam had to stay at home and help around the house. The youngest girl always got new clothes because the hand-me-downs from the eldest were worn out by the time they were to be passed on to her. My mam wanted to go to secretarial college but there was no money to send her; by the time her younger sister wanted to go, there was enough money because both my mam and the elder sister were married and no longer living at home. And what really hurt was that the younger sister never worked or used the secretarial skills she’d learnt whereas my mam had to take cleaning and factory jobs after she was married because she wasn’t qualified to do anything else. No wonder she pushed me so hard.

Emotionally there were lots of scars too. She was never told about babies or how you got them until her wedding night. She fell pregnant with me and dind’t know the first thing about what to expect or what was happening to her body. After a very long labour in hospital I was delivered by forceps, taken away and put in isolation. She never held or even saw me till I was brought back to her almost 48 hours later. She thought I had died, despite everyone’s reassurances, and when she saw me with my cut eye, pointy head and purple wizened body that resembled a skinned rabbit, she was sure some unmarried mother had given birth to me; her beautiful chubby girl with blonde curls was definitely dead, or stolen. And to top it all, my overpossessive paternal grandmother registered my birth and gave me the name of Christine, not Julie as my mam had wanted. No wonder it was difficult for her to bond with me or know how to raise me. She did the best she could and I’m grateful for everything she taught me, but I have issues. Residues of childhood that appear on the edges of my self-confidence can sometimes, without warning, incapacitate me.

Growing up I had the selective memory of any child. I remembered the smacks, rejections and cruel remarks, unable to see the fact I having clothes on my back and food to eat were signs of being loved. My mother was unable to ever say sorry and after she died I found a letter she’d written to my father apologizing for not being able to say ‘I love you’ but assuring him that she did. The story of my birth and how I was the ugliest child she’d ever seen was a well-worn family ‘joke’ that I embraced, believing this was the reason I was unloveable. Needless to say that has had disastrous repercussions all my life. Even today, I’m still unable to see in the mirror what other people see but know my worth as a person goes much deeper than how I look.

When she was dying in hospital from kidney failure I had a few weeks to get rid of my abrasiveness and the past disappeared for both of us. At last we were able to express what we really felt and to make amends. I remember one time I was massaging her feet and moistening her mouth, trying to make her comfortable. My son was in the room and and later he told me that he was very moved by the way she looked at me, with unmistakeable love in her eyes, as if in that moment nothing and no-one existed but me.

I have a younger brother who I believed right up till mam was ill that was loved more than me. He was a perfect child – didn’t cry, did as he was told, didn’t answer back and was cuddly. It took me till we had to organize rotas for hospital visits that I finally acknowledged that we were loved equally but differently. We also had a lot in common. Because we moved round a lot – I went to 8 different schools – we both have control issues. We don’t like other people’s rules but where I would bully everyone into playing my rules, he’d withdraw and play by himself.

It has taken a lot of time to re-love my brother. I used to love him when he was born, but my paternal grandmother’s way of punishing me was to tell me she didn’t love me, she loved him because he wasn’t naughty like me. Yet she, too, was another mother, a victim of her times. Unable to loosen the stranglehold on my father, her precious only child she’d given birth to late in life 3 months early and kept alive with an eyedropper when he was less than 2lbs in weight, she caused problems for him all his life with her suffocating love.

I read a blog yesterday questioning the idea that being a mother was the most important job in the world. It was mainly raging against the statement because it excluded fathers and other care givers and queried the semantics of what is a mother anyway – biology, situation or emotional connection? And whether their jobs are more important than surgeons who save lives or politicians who have the power to annihilate the human race. It was very interesting and I don’t discount the intellectual arguments it posited. However, when I look at my girls and see the wonderful jobs they are doing raising their children and compare that to how I raised mine and how I was raised, I believe that mothers, good, bad or indifferent, impact on their children’s lives in ways that differentiate them from other care givers. Maybe it’s the umbilical cord, I don’t know, but rejection by my mother hurt much more than by my father who was equally guilty of not having read child pyschology. So today I’m celebrating mothers everywhere, and mine in particular, for the amazing jobs they do despite all the odds.

One of my favourite books is The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. I leave you with a quote that resonates with me and connects me to all the people in the world who are doing the best they can, especially in the many areas of conflict we see on our tv screens.
It doesn’t interest me where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after a night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children

Keeping the Faith

I’m not an expert or authority on anything or anyone other than myself. And that’s the person I find hardest keeping faith with. If I make a promise to anyone else I will do everything that is humanly possible to keep my word, so why do I so often let myself down?

I used to suffer from ‘broken wing syndrome’. Something snapped a long time ago and was never set straight with the right splints so the bones grew back mis-shapen. Consequently I could only rise just above the ground and flap in endless circles. What I needed was for the wing to be broken again and re-set properly, healed properly, but that was a pretty daunting task. Thoughts of Will it hurt? What if it doesn’t work? What if I end up worse than before? How will I manage till it heals? What will I do if it does work? Is it too late to learn to fly? assailed and paralysed me.

When I was growing up as a ‘Baby Boomer’, parenting was based on the philosophies of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and ‘children should be seen and not heard’. The previous generation had suffered austerity and wars, whereas my generation had opportunities never envisaged before. This has gone a long way to make my generation the one that is the healthiest, most active and willing to try new things. Not for us the holiday in Blackpool at the same b&b year after year – we’re more likely to be found trekking the Inca Trail, scuba diving in Sharm el Sheik or bungy-jumping Victoria Falls. But for all that, there has been a cost.

I can remember running home to tell my parents that I had come top in a test at school, but my dad’s reaction was to ask why I didn’t get 100%. After a while I stopped running home, then I stopped telling him. Later I stopped going to school. My dad loved me and as an adult I know he was trying to instill in me the need to be always trying to improve, to never be satisfied with anything less than he thought me capable of. He also wanted me to get used to disappointment and never praised me in case I got big-headed. This was a strategy enforced by other authority figures and was designed at first to keep people ‘in their place’, later to control an emergent generation who dared to think differently about sacrifice and subservience. We rebelled, of course, but I still battled feelings of ‘not good enough’ even though intellectually I knew I was.

So what has changed? I have.

Trying to make sense of the failed relationships I’ve been involved in has made me much more philosophical. I now understand myself a bit better and that some relationships last lifetimes, some last minutes and others don’t last at all. They have all taught me something, for which I am grateful. But what has been the hardest lesson to learn, and I’m still working on it, is that it’s okay not to be perfect and that if I don’t keep faith with myself, why should anyone else?


This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine

We’ve passed the half-way mark and the nights are getting shorter but with all this sunshine the daylight is incredibly bright and clear. It reminds me of the long hot summer days of childhood, when the tarmac melted and bubbled up. I used to have great fun squashing the tar bubbles, although my mother was less than impressed with all the tar I got on my white socks and the bottoms of my new sandals. They say we romanticize about times past and that nothing was ever as good as our memories lead us to believe, summers long gone being a popular fantsy of ours. Yet the tar really did melt, I was always slathered in Calomine lotion at night to soothe my sunburn, and as kids who were thrown out the house after breakfast and not allowed back in till mealtimes I don’t remember being soaked and shivering on the doorstep many times.

I had a great-aunt Ida whose days were determined by the light. She got up at daybreak and went to bed at dusk. She was crippled, being born with kneecaps in the wrong place, and until she left home was hidden out of sight from visitors. Her method of moving was to sit on a stool and work herself around by leaning her weight on one side and moving the other side of the stool forwards. She had a horrible life which was lived vicariously through her siblings. She learnt to sew and made dresses and altered cothes for her sisters’ dance dates. She never went out of the house or had any fun. When I knew her she occupied an upstairs flat next door to my grandma, so never got out then either, although on sunny days she used to shuffle downstairs on her bum and sit on the step at her front door.

When my dad got a car we used to take her out for a ‘run’ on Sundays. She was scared of the traffic, shouting at cars to ‘Get away home!’ but loved the trees and the countryside. My parents made sure we had her for every holiday and I hated it. She had no table manners, having spent her life eating alone, had no teeth and made noises that retched my stomach. I used to get into enough trouble for not eating so when she stayed it was purgatory trying to get my vegetables down. I couldn’t wait to escape and hated the sight of her. As she got older she stopped washing and looking after herself, probably suffering from Altzheimer’s, and when she died I heaved a huge sigh of relief.

When you’re young you feel the world owes you something and that when things don’t go your way you feel badly done to. I was a spiteful and selfish teenager with no compassion for this relative whose life had been limited beyond anything I could ever understand. Yet there were times when I was small that I used to like to visit Ida because she told such wonderful stories about her brothers and sisters. She never complained and I never wondered why none of her stories were ever about her. She taught me a lot about strength in adversity, sadly not in her lifetime. She had a light of her own that I wish I had seen more clearly, but I’m often reminded of her in summer when I look up through the trees or watch the dappled sunlight on grass.