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What gives?

All the written and unwritten rules and opinions and expectations of motherhood, womanhood, modern families, modern society; all the said and unsaid guilt, failures and struggles fill my head.

The pushing and pulling of instinct, need, duty, emotional sacrifice.

Sacrifice.

Why should daily life feel like a sacrifice?

Why are there so many different versions of me that they just don’t fit?
They simply don’t fit.
Yet there isn’t one I want to leave behind.

One day one gives. Another day another one gives. The housewife returns again and again: “Back by popular demand…”
Some versions leave for months or years at a time.
The reader puts her book away. The musician ceases playing – the sensitive types that think they won’t be missed.

There’s one I couldn’t leave behind if I tried – and I have tried – she’s the one that causes the most trouble: the solitary, quiet, thinking version.

Her need for quiet is deafening. Shhhh… Her withdrawal is suffocating.

She doesn’t give. She takes me with her.

“Not when all is said and done,” she says. “Now,” she says. “The time is now.”

She rips me away from the other versions of myself until I scream and let go.

I can’t help it.



But then I’m up, I’m breathing; I’m gasping for air!



She’s the only one that saw I was drowning.



Who packed your head?

When I finished my degree with the Open University in May, I decided that as soon as I got my final result – and if I passed – I would write about studying with the OU.

My result arrived at the end of July but I realised I didn’t know what to write, or – more to the point – what not to write. It’s been an on and off experience that started twelve years ago with the last three years being the most intense so there’s a danger of a lot of back story. I sat down and started to write something two weeks ago, but it became a rather dull account of the courses I’d taken, and as I was writing it I was saying to myself, ‘No, this isn’t it. This is crap.’

I don’t want to jump up and down yelling, ‘I’ve got an honours degree!’ I never began adult learning to get a degree and I’m glad I didn’t take that approach. I took courses because I wanted to know stuff and I wanted to use my brain. I became addicted to opening my head and tweaking with the wiring. The degree has been a bonus – which has arrived just at a time when I can’t afford to take any more courses (now called modules).

There are points I want to make about learning and thinking; about the connections between learning and society, and about how less statistical, less mechanical-based learning and a bigger focus on discussions, ideas and theories might not only make us more curious and open-minded but might also make us better and more useful members of society ready to consider new ideas and with the skills to challenge things.

Of course there are facts, of course there are statistics, of course there are rules in any field, but I think they should all come with a zipper like a luggage bag that we can open up in order to challenge the contents and ask who put them there. And, I think most importantly, that this “Did you pack your bag yourself?” type question should apply to our own brains too. We need to examine what’s in our own heads: Did you pack your own brain? Did you look at what went into it and why? Do you know what’s in there and who put it in there? Is it all stuff that you need and is useful to you? I see you have the times tables and periodic tables in there – is that really going to be useful to you where you’re going? And your holiday reading: ‘Exact and Accurate Facts About the Romans: you’d better believe it.’ by Professor Pompous N. Narrow-minded – Hmmm… are you sure you wouldn’t prefer ‘How to Make an Interesting Picture of Roman Life Through Archaeological Finds’ by Many and Various?

School seems to have tried (pretty unsuccessfully) to teach me who did what and when, what happens when you mix this with that, how to sit quietly, how to obey rules. How not to think for myself… I didn’t see the point of carrying on with this kind of education and I still don’t find it very useful.
I remember sitting in a physics lesson and the teacher telling the class “this does that” and “that does this” and me thinking, ‘Why…? Why though?!?’
In history lessons, we were told, “So and so did this”, “another person said that”, “the people thought something else.” ‘But, how do you know?’ I thought. ‘You’ve only given me one person’s word for this.’ And as for telling me we know that God and Jesus said and did things based on some books that a bunch of blokes wrote down years later…! Well…

Other people seemed to accept the “facts”, the rules, the processes as sets of information to be memorised and regurgitated. They repeated them in tests, they scored the points. I didn’t learn like that. I don’t learn like that. I needed a point, a reason; proof of how we know something and how it might be useful. I want to see things working, being applied to life, otherwise what’s the point?

I don’t mind uncertainty, experts having different opinions, and having to weigh up a rough probability based on different evidences. I wish I could go back in time and try this approach on the young Rachel. Would she have responded differently? I know that when our youngest comes home from her Church of England primary school telling me that God did this and Jesus did that I want to shake her and say, ‘Question your sources! Don’t accept things just because that’s what the person telling you believes! Your beliefs should be a result of looking at all sides of things.’

Some people’s studying always has an end goal by choice or by financial/career necessity. But having an end goal, studying for that one purpose, concentrating on what it takes to pass, managing to stick with that, achieving that and getting the desired job that requires that set of knowledge doesn’t fit with the way my mind works. It doesn’t fit with my idea of educating people for life.

What I’ve found through studying many and varied courses with the OU is how to take a good look inside my own brain. It’s taught me to think about what I think and why, what I want to know and why, and how new knowledge from many different academics in many different fields has helped me not only to see that learning is not the same as facts, but that being anxious about memorising stuff was seriously hindering my learning process.

I don’t think I would have come to the place I am today if it wasn’t for the Open University. Where else can you chop and change course like that, have many many interests like that, obtain a degree that’s in not one, not two, not three but several different areas like that? How else can you improve yourself like that without even leaving your house, fit everything around family and work, and send assignments sitting up in bed at midnight? I’ve realised that I don’t come easily packaged, I don’t want to shine in one area, I am happy to be a jack of all trades – easily distracted by something I haven’t tried before. I am a human being first and foremost. An imperfect, curious, questioning, open-eyed, open-minded person. I’ve learnt to question myself, and challenge my intolerances (most of which I had no right to have) and preconceptions. I’ve learnt that poetry is not actually scary or that difficult! I’ve learnt that statistics are a feeble way of trying to prove an argument, and I’ve learnt that people can’t be trusted and yet people can be trusted. I’ve learnt that having a degree is not necessarily the same as knowing loads of things or the same as being a good learner.

I think it’s really important not to plonk ourselves in one field in life: to only look at things from one perspective. I think it’s important to see thinking and information as unfixed, as fluid, as never-ending.
I studied technology, social sciences, the arts, psychology, health and social care, literature, creative writing, and in my daily life I am interested in music, in writing, in taking photographs, how the news is reported, how we are affected by TV and media. I’ve seen how philosophy runs through all of these things: how we think the way we do, why we live the way we do, and most importantly how we must observe ourselves and all of humankind and discuss these things.

Many times over the last 2 weeks whilst thinking about writing this piece, I’ve thought how things I’ve heard or seen apply to what I want to say here. That just goes to show really how important learning and keeping learning, how thinking and discussing and challenging must be available to all and must be encouraged.

We can’t just rely on packing our brains with preconceptions, or unchallenged information delivered mechanically.

We need to know ourselves to improve ourselves.

I’m proud of myself. Very proud that I’ve looked inside my head and allowed it to be challenged, tweaked, added to and, for the purposes of being a life-long learner, I’ve had a zipper fitted.

I’m glad I’ve got a degree but above all I’m glad I improved my way of looking at things. I KNOW it has made me older, fatter, messier, untidier, frustrated, cynical… a much better person.

Against the tide

There is a tide.
It is strong.
It pulls at the ground, at the air, at the people.
People are drawn, excited by its power. They join hands; excited by the noise, excited by the enormity, excited by other people telling them to be excited. They are excited by a need to be excited by something.

There is much noise, much enthusiasm, but very little discussion about why they are doing this and what they will leave behind.

Everyone (it seems) is overwhelmed by the sounds and they are getting into boats and sailing away on the tide.

I squint into the distance from where they have come, behind and beyond the queues of people, and see tiny dots left on the land.

I am thinking, “But…”

And yet I say nothing.

I am wondering, “Why?”

And yet I say nothing.

I sigh.
I have doubts about the tide and how long it will last and what good it will bring to go out on such a powerful tide. But such a great number of people can’t be wrong, can they? And there is such enthusiasm.

They take a lot of money, a lot of provisions, and all the newspaper reporters go with them too.

I don’t wave goodbye. They don’t wave goodbye. They think I am angry or mad because I don’t go with them. I don’t feel angry, I don’t think I’m mad, but I wonder why I don’t find the tide as mesmerising as they do.

And so I look at the ground, at the sky, at the dots, and find many things to distract me. I am happy for a while. They have their thing out on the tide and I have my thing. I find comfort in this for a while.

But every day, every hour, every minute my thoughts are disturbed by messages washing up on the beach about the tide; how it is strong, how it is good, how there are new heros to worship, new distractions to concentrate on – over and above any of my things, and apparently everything bad has faded into insignificance.

I walk away from the mess the messages have left on the shore and travel to the dots only to find they are people.

“We were left behind,” they say. “Why did you say nothing when you saw us?”

“I didn’t want to go against the tide,” I say.

“You may as well have gone with them then,” they say. “You’re no help.”

I see the boats return on the next tide.

The people returning are poor, are hungry. It turns out the money wasn’t for them – it was used to make the noise. But they say they have memories and they have heros.

I hope it is enough for them.

I see it is no comfort to the dots. The bad things didn’t go away. They got worse.

I wonder if I could have gone against the tide and what good it would have brought.





The Glass Cube

Sticky eyes, pricky eyes, “Don’t like the light” eyes
Bones not rested; that bruised back feeling
Knowing that much-needed cup of tea is no longer hot
Seeing the sky is not blue – again…
Hearing her little cough – again…
Trembling after a night of turning right then left then right again with anxiety and worries that don’t make sense.
Searching for positives, for good things, for the real and joyous which always seem so contained within a glass cube; obvious and close, yet somehow not easy to touch.

Bitesize

The smartest dog in the pack may actually be the quiet one who keeps his head down.

 

After all, the Alpha dog’s position will always be precarious.

 

Quiet and intelligent is useful, and successful communities will see how it is wise to respect and nurture these types.

Not competing is healthy too

As a writer, as a mother, as a member of society, as a musician, as an ex-school girl, as a small business person (I’m not particularly small though!) and as an observer of the media I’ve seen the effects of and discussions around competitiveness throughout my life and something is bugging me. It’s this statement:

“Competing is healthy.”

Well I’m here to say, just a cotton-picking minute! That statement is incomplete!
There are all sorts of words and opinions excluded from that.

This is more like it:

“It is believed by many that competing is healthy but it is by no means necessary have competition in order to be happy, fit, or successful in what one does. Although many enjoy competition, many others do not and, unhappily, find it is forced upon them. Competition is about winners and losers. There are many areas of life and many situations where winners and losers are not appropriate and competition can actually be damaging or destroy one’s enjoyment of an activity. Whilst some people may feel they need to compete, their views should not be imposed upon those who don’t and can cope perfectly well – if not better – without competing at anything.”
(Those are the words I’ve come up with just now. I will probably think of one hundred more throughout the day)

Competing is not for me. It doesn’t make me feel healthy at all. I don’t want to stop other people competing but I wish I could stop it being enforced on those who don’t enjoy it and don’t benefit from it. I also wish I could dispel the myths about competition because I think many of them ARE myths – especially when people say that competition is THE way to create team spirit and communal sense of achievement. It is not THE way, it is A way. There are many things that can be created, built, achieved and enjoyed (including physical activity) together that create community and bonding without winners and losers. In fact I’ve been more physically active whilst deliberately avoiding the Olympics and it has involved absolutely no competition whatsoever.

I don’t enter writing competitions, for instance. I am aware of writing competitions and had a period of about 2 months of my life where I attempted to enter about 3 but I found that I wrote badly and lost my natural flow when thinking about being judged. I write for the sheer love of it, for the almost physical need to just do it, to create, to share, to make something. I don’t want or need to win anything. I have also been involved in reading writing that is being judged and can see how damaging it can be, how subjective it is and how not only does good writing not always win but the winners are not always my favourite. I worry that people think they need to win things in order to feel a sense of fulfilment in what they do. It’s not for everybody but I think people are swept up into tides of common thinking and don’t always stop to think what suits them.

As a mother I see how awards and grades and comparing oneself with others all the time creates neediness. Children find they feel a need to always be better than others and when they can’t be they can be unhealthily disappointed, or even quite unpleasant. These outcomes could be avoided if children were just encouraged to enjoy what they do. I’m not saying, ‘No competitive sport.’ Those that want it can go get it rather than everyone being forced into it and feeling they have to opt out like loser. When I was a school pupil I felt the constant comparing almost unbearable and not a true measure of ability. Top grades does not mean most intelligent yet those who don’t find themselves at the top of the class feel less worthy. I think we are teaching the wrong sets of values.

It upsets me incredibly that we have an almost pack-like mentality in that we have to arrange ourselves into some sort of order like dogs. The angriest, the fastest, the greediest, the bossiest – the most competitive of us all is considered the best. But it’s simply not true that he is. The cave man who runs the fastest, pushes other cavemen out of the way, grabs the meat and gets to eat it all himself is the pushiest but he’s not the best and he has deprived others. It’s an attitude I see in business and instead of being applauded it should be frowned upon as Neanderthal.

Recently the obsession with winning has exploded because of the Olympics. Games with winners and losers as entertainment seems to work. It’s fun (as I have observed! I don’t enjoy it at all though). But whole lives centered around winning and losing?

I don’t think so.

Please stop thinking competition is good for everyone or a necessary part of civilised society. Because it simply is not true.

It isn’t.

No it just isn’t.

No. Shut up.

Yuck

A flash fiction

We are allowed to watch a film on a doctor’s fold-up computer in the camp. It is a film in a language I don’t understand with people so different from us it is like they are from another planet. Their clothes are plain and pale and flat. They speak too loud and too fast and there is never any still or any quiet.
A translator tells us it is a film popular with children all over the world.

There is a girl my age in the film. But she is not like me. She sits with her family at a table to eat but she doesn’t like her meal and refuses to eat it. I can not imagine ever refusing food.

The girl in the film is shouting at her father.
When the floods came and the mud and the house moved down the hill and we tried to run away I shouted at my father. But he didn’t hear me.

The girl in the film says a word: Yuck.
I would like some yuck. I would eat some yuck. I want to pull her flat hair and sit in her place and eat up all her yuck and show her how hungry I am.

Shelterbox

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