Sunday 24 November 2019

I cannot notice you, because I have a fug of misery around my head

An optimistic sketch based on
Gertrude Stein's
A rose is a rose is a rose.
I am an optimist.  Let me get that out of the way first.  My glass is half full, and I see the good in things.  I am lucky to have basic necessities like somewhere to live, something to eat and clothes to keep me warm.  I am lucky to have family and friends, and if I were to get ill, I could call an ambulance for free, and be taken to a hospital also for free.  My experience may or may not be pretty dire, but the system is set up for me to use.

But we belong to a world in which there is suffering.  Things are wrong, things are bad, and somehow, despite having all that we do have, life can be a struggle.  I do not mean that we want to end it all but just having nice things doesn't mean we are sorted.  It doesn't mean we are protected from all the difficult feelings like sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, loss, judgement and anger.

My world.

I live in a big old house that has been painted in the colours I chose. It is filled with treasures and beauty, like my grandmother's sieve from her kitchen and my grandfather's shabby green canvas and wood folding chair.  I have my late brother's bed, a huge wooden affair made for my grandfather a century or so ago, and I have the beautiful bone china tea set, chipped, mismatched and utterly beautiful, that my Irish grandmother used for best.

The pantry is full of food.  The kitchen is painted a beautiful warm pale green and all the artwork from over the years looks wonderful against this green.  In fact, the whole house is painted the same gentle warm, peaceful green.  Except the bedrooms, they are a blend of duck egg blue and gentle turquoise.

My dining room has a bright pink sofa with colourful African cushions, and my sitting room has a red sofa with a motley assortment of pink and red cushions with jewels, sparkles and twinkles sewn onto the fabric.  Not by me, I bought them and was given them like this.  I have fairy lights and fresh flowers all over the place, and in the garden the flowers grow with abandon, making me feel that there is magic outside my back door.  My friend Chris does all the hard work, he manages the garden so that I can lie in it and admire all the nature tumbling around me.

My youngest son lives with me, and we inhabit the house happily, independently and respectfully together, bumbling around this big old house in our own little lives together, separately, bumping into each other during the day, and taking a moment to ask how the other's day is going.  My other son, my daughter and her family come to visit and to stay, and everyone has a great time eating and talking, until the day is over and I clear up, knowing all the time how lucky I am.


These things, this wonderful sounding life, does not protect me from feeling overwhelmed by feelings of failure.  My grandmother's sieve does not help me when I have ignored deadlines and the big wooden bed does not tell me not to worry when I am too weary to do the things I believe I want to do.  Like some great artistic creation that I feel I ought to be doing and can't even begin to visualise or make sense of.  When I am too stuck to even get a pen and paper out to write lists of the things I fear I am not doing and never will do, the lovely bone china tea set cannot make it suddenly easy to start writing.  Or thinking.  On paper, at a superficial level, I should be forever happy and satisfied.  All the time taken up in having negative feelings should be freed up, for me to dance with joy from room to room having only positive feelings, and finding the way clear to do all those wonderful things that I have always wanted to do, since nothing stands in my way any more.  Nothing standing in the way for me, means the bills are paid, the house looks fab, there is food in the kitchen and all my children are grown up, living their own lives, and I do not have to get up in the night to change anyone's nappies.  It means there is order, and silence, and I am not constrained as I once was a young mother, with the weight of all worlds, all humanity and all struggles on my shoulders.

It helps a great deal to live as well as I do.  My point is that the things we own do not take away our complex natures.  Even if I were happy to potter about for ever in my home and do nothing else, I would still be prone to all the myriad emotions we humans feel.  I may not be worried about finishing (or even starting) creative projects, but I may find myself worrying about how the fuchsia in the garden is growing, or how global warming is beyond my control, or that I am growing old.  It does not matter what we do and how we live, we will all experience pain as well as pleasure.  And often, we choose pain more than pleasure.

A thought.

I do much sitting and thinking.  I sit on the red sofa sometimes, the pink sofa other times.  Over the last few weeks I have been feeling tired, full of doubts about my abilities and a bit stuck.  The only way out of these feelings of inadequacy was to watch as many police documentaries as I could find.  I watched fast car chases, I watched drugs busts, I watched police forces all over the country do their thing, and then I went on to America.  I found documentaries on the FBI, and forensic investigations and while I was watching all this, I was transfixed.  It was perfect but when it was over, there was that pain of re connection.  At some point, I had to come back to where I left off, and the feelings of self criticism that had plagued me before I started to watch the FBI demonstrate sophisticated interrogation techniques, took up again where they left off.  And then - I had a thought.

I, we, become distracted by all these difficult feelings.  We become used to them.  We allow them in as if they have the right to be there and to dominate.  What if, I thought, I don't listen to them?  What if I look over the top of them and look for thoughts that I actually like? If I find thoughts that I actually like, will I find it too hard to keep my focus on them?  And if I do find it hard to focus on them, is it because I am so accustomed to living in my difficult thoughts, that I have begun to agree with them and live them?  Have I allowed myself to become brainwashed?

Looking around me, I thought, what a waste of time to not even know that I am ignoring better thoughts. The fairy lights were draped around the sitting room, and I looked at them from the red sofa.  I had lit a scented candle, which filled the room with lovely smells.  What the hell, I thought, the lights and candle were there a few minutes ago, and I am only just noticing them now.  If I am so wrapped up in feelings of failure, disillusionment (with myself),  tiredness and lack, then where is there room for anything else?  The candles and lights are amazing!  They are lovely, but if I am putting my head into a dark fuzzy cloud and keeping it there, candles and lights are just things that I do.  Without noticing them.  Of course I can't see these lovely things clearly, I am not interested in them.  I am only interested in being miserable and trying to distract myself with police documentaries.   What if, then, I changed my thoughts?

What came into my mind was that all the good stuff is out there too.  It always was.  It never went away, and it is always there along with our perceptions of bad stuff.  There are people who support us, our friends, our families, whoever it is that supports you even is it is only one greengrocer in your village, there is someone nice out there.  We forget to look for them.  We forget to remember them. I thought, gosh - I am surrounded by wonder.  It was always there, but I chose to go with the misery.  I have friends out there who say they love me.  Well, maybe they do!  Just maybe, they do!  I have a studio in which to create - well  blow me down!  Just because I am not in there and making a masterpiece does not mean it isn't a wonder.  Stop all the self pity, it does not matter if I go in there and create or I go in there and call all my family in America.  There is already work in the studio from over the years that is good enough, I have already done enough and it does not matter.  What matters is that feeling inadequate is a preventative, not a prerequisite, for anything.

Doodles from the studio
So I looked around at what was already there, already in place to give me hope.  To give me pleasure.  There is an ocean of support and goodness out there for us.  There is so much in our lives that we take for granted, because we are so caught up in living out the negative thoughts in our heads.  We have a false sense of modesty.  Bad things are easier to be than good.  Nobody wants to be seen to boast, and to be full of themselves.  We expect the bad things and discount the good.  We work at the good till we have changed them round to the bad so we can be comfortable with them.  So deep down, we feel relieved that we are rubbish, even though we say we don't like it.  It is just easier to be there than to rise up like a lark ascending, and take in the light, our successes, the support around us, and to believe in our own worth.  And actually, it is a good thing to admit we are good at things.  It isn't boasting, it is the truth.  I am really good at portraits.  There.  That isn't boasting, is it?

I looked around and the things that I saw to support and give me hope were not simply that my house is nice and that I can have toast any time of day or night, I saw friends who want the best for me.  I saw family who think well of me.  I saw people who offer me opportunities, who help me get things done - like the local printers in Bognor who never let me down.  There are wider things, like the fact that I can get a train anywhere I like.  Think about it, the service may be rotten but I am better off than in many countries.  I can actually go places.  The sea is at the end of my road - what a wonder.  And then, I thought, I have choice.  I have agency.  I am healthy and I can make decisions about my life.  Many people can't.  I can.  Blimey, what am I doing in allowing a miserable fug to live around my head?

And then I remembered that actually, we do have to have these darknesses.  We cannot know the light without the dark and so, these sad times will always be here with us.  But what I am thinking now, is that we do not have to let them take over.  We must allow ourselves to find our joy.  What we are missing, is joy.  If we know and agree that it is possible to change our minds, then we have the tools possibly, when we are down in the dumps, to look for the moment when we can stand up and say Eureka!  and begin to look for the oceans of blessings that may surround us.

I'm JOLLY good at portraits.  Not boasting, is it?

Sunday 10 November 2019

You are my aunt. Am I? Are you sure? What else am I?

I am sitting up in bed in Trumbull, Connecticut, America.  It is early, I am watching for the dawn through the windows, and I have been down to my aunt's kitchen with my mobile phone torch in the darkness to make a pot of tea.  I do not want to wake my aunt because she will not remember who I am nor why I am making tea in her kitchen in the darkness.  And she sleeps next to the kitchen with her door open.  But I am quiet, and successful, and with tea, the winter sky lightening and my laptop, I am ready.  It is after six, and if I were in Bognor it would be nearly midday.

I am staying with my father's older sister.  Long before I was born, my father's sister moved to America to ease a broken heart.  She married here, had two daughters, and stayed.  My aunt is nearly ninety now, and has the same condition as my father, though she is in the earlier stages.  My cousins have arranged for me to come and see her and now, in her house, surrounded by evidence of her long life and the family we have in common, I can't believe I am so lucky to be here, and to have this family.  I am especially grateful to have this time with my precious aunt, who is gracious and kind and has no idea who I am or why I am here.

Lunch with my cousin's husband, Vladimir
I am not sentimental.  I never have been, I can't see the point of it.  I like to get to the heart of things and not get overwhelmed by feelings so that I can be the best I can be in any situation.  So being here in my Aunt's home, all the way over in America, when she has no idea who I am, is powerful.  I love my aunt, everyone does, she is one of those gentle, loving and strong women who form the backbone of our families.  I do not know much about her day to day life, and I have not see her much in my lifetime, but I know who she is and I know her parents, her children, her brother and sister.  I even met her grandmother.  I know where she comes from and I know the stories of her childhood because she and my father and their older sister are a tight unit and have been together all their lives.  My father's oldest sister says that she has always felt responsible for the other two.  She feels that very strongly, especially now that they are in their late eighties and early nineties, and two of the siblings are struggling with memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's.  My father's oldest sister is as bright and sharp as she has ever been, it is hard for her to see her siblings struggle.  My father does know who his sisters are, he knows who my brothers and I are, but he does not know where he is or what is going on.  He is unable to walk, feed himself or even sit up.  He cannot initiate a conversation, and cannot remember how to respond with words.  But he is still in there, when we visit him we can see that he is still there and his smile is the same as it ever was.  Recently he asked me if I had ever met his wife.  Yes, I said, I knew her well, she was my mother.  He looked impressed.

After my cousins left yesterday afternoon, my aunt and I held hands and looked at all the photos she had on the walls.  She was surprised that I knew who they were.  From time to time I said, do you know that your brother is my father?  Each time she was absolutely amazed.  No! She said, that means you are my sister!  I told her she was my aunt, and that we are family, and each time she was astonished.  You will have to call me Aunt, she said, laughing. I have called her Aunt all my life, but she has forgotten.  Because she does not know who I am, I hold her hand to show her she is safe.  We read stories of her life that her older sister has written and sent to her, and she is delighted with the memories.
My amazing cousin Vicky, wife of Vlad

My cousins here are amazing women.  They take care of my aunt with all the patience and determination that they can.  My father is looked after in a specialist nursing home, and my brothers and I do not have to do anything but visit him.  My aunt here is cared for by her daughters, grandchildren and son in law.  But in each moment my aunt is alone, she is confused and forgetful, and cannot remember that her family has been with her that day.

I love my cousins.  I have two cousins from my aunt here, and we have always been friends.  They have been my confidants and co conspirators in life from early childhood, despite not seeing each other often.  My oldest aunt's son lives nearby too, and over the years he and his family have become my most wonderful friends, and I am staying with this excellent cousin too.  It is good that my father and his two beloved sisters have families that are close too.

An attempted kiss not a
So back to this aunt, who I can hear moving around downstairs.  She is feeding her cat, and I was told by my cousin last night that she will go back to bed again for a while after feeding him.  Soon I will go down and tell her that I am staying with her, and that her brother is my father.  I will hold her hand, and she will talk about things she remembers, and will stop from time to time to make sure I am comfortable, happy, fed and have everything that I need.  Even though she won't remember what I am in her house for, she is looking after me.  How lovely.  She has snowy white hair and big blue eyes.  She has kind warm hands and her house is full of old family photographs I have not seen before, and pictures and letters from her grandchildren, now grown up and away at college.  My cousins will come over and we will all spend the day together.  We will call her older sister in England, and I will video my aunt sending messages to my father and to her sister.  Then when I go back to England, I will take this time with our most treasured aunt and relay it to her sister and brother.  Then knowing me, I will plan another visit and come back.

Soon, my aunt may remember who I am and sigh, Oh not again.  She's not my sister, but she is very familiar.  She keeps making tea in the middle of the night in the dark.  Strange woman, that.  From the UK, you know.  She needs some looking after.

Post script.  My aunt just opened the door and walked into my room.  I didn't know how many people were staying in my house, she said, or where they were.  I told her my name and that she was my aunt and she looked at me with recognition and said - yes, I remember you as a little girl.  So YOU are Antonia.  With that, we went downstairs to have some breakfast.  (This isn't my house, she said on the way down, it belongs to some man.  I think he's my uncle.)

Our most precious Aunt.