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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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.

 

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.

 

Fear

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.

Intuition and Perception

As a writer as well as a woman I often rely upon intuiton to guide me. Not often enough, however, because sometimes when I ignore it, I only have to return to it later when it has proven to be correct. But what, exactly, is it?

I came across an article on Brain Pickings online newsletter entitled “How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Intuition. In it Daniel Kahneman looks at how the brain works and he ascertains that it learns more by making mistakes than by getting everything right. No surprises there. He then goes on to assert that:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.”

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

I don’t know about you but he lost me at the word knowledge bit. The article is very academic, as you’d expect from a Nobel prize winning psychologist, and I’m sure, since his book has been rated one of the best psychology books of 2012, that it’s well researched and informative. However, for me the distinction between intuition and perception is to do with something that is integral and something that is learned.

Migrating birds don’t seem to have ‘word language’, nor turtles hatching out of eggs and making straight for the sea, or salmon swimming upstream in the rivers of their birth. By all accounts they have a signal inside them that provides instruction and direction that isn’t imparted by anyone else, they’re born with it. I know this kind of intuition is different from what Kahneman was talking about in his ‘intuitive thinking’, but it’s easier for me to understand how my body/mind can tell me something is wrong before it happens if I think about turtles. It’s all about survival.

Perception, on the other hand, seems more to do with value judgements or ways of looking at something. In an art class I attended there was a huge bowl on the centre of the table in the middle of the room, filled with flowers. Each sketch from the students was different, based on their unique styles, artistic temperament and also their positions around the table. For me, perception is like that. We each see something differently based on our past experiences, expectations, and knowledge/understanding. So how does this affect my writing?

When I write poetry I first rely on my ‘intuitive inner voice’ to help me feel the words, decide on line endings, hear the cadences and movement of the poems. I then use my ‘critical inner voice/friend’ to unpick the ideas, check them against what I know/have read/learnt/want to achieve to help me decide what needs to be changed. My ‘intuition’ gets me started, my ‘critical friend’ helps me to review and refine until I’m happy with the results. When someone reads my poems they may like or dislike them but not really know why, which is probably an intuitive response, whereas those who like or dislike and can give reasons are proabably using perception.

As Kahneman says, they’re both linked and to know one we need to understand the other. I love the intelligence, vocabulary and passion of people like him, and I do try to read academic works. However, for my purpose here I like the simpler analogies of turtles, salmon or swallows.

 

Mothers

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