Follow your arrow

I’ve often wondered what age one has to attain in order to dispense wisdom.  I have I realise, dispensed a considerable amount of wisdom throughout my fifty years some of it with great confidence.  I realise now that I was probably blagging it, bullshitting in a really convincing way.  Convincing enough that I convinced even myself.  What did I know at 20, at 30, at 40?  What do I know now at 50?  Am I qualified yet?  Will I ever be?

I’m an avid reader of self help books, articles, web pages.  I gather nuggets of information from a variety of sources, both fashionable and anecdotal, as well as the researched and codified.  I like to explore the ideas behind beliefs, religions, thought processes – studying psychology itself with the Open University was a delight and gave me, I hope an ability to analyse, consider and digest.  And there’s so much information, so many suggestions, so many ways to ‘be successful’, ‘live a perfect life’, ‘be the best mum’, ‘do the right thing’.  The list is truly endless.

So how do you get to the point where you have the confidence to dispense wisdom?  And what, in reality are people seeking when they turn to others for help?  I like to say to people faced with the big decisions in life, that given enough time, those decisions generally make themselves.  What we do day to day, who we do it with, where we do it are all things inevitably driven by the ebb and flow of the lives around us.  We can make choices, sure, but it’s often felt to me that the real decision making is taken out of our hands.  And that you can ask as many people as you like what you should do, but at some stage, you’ll find yourself somewhere you had no idea you’d be and with little real idea of how you got there.  

I have a favourite phrase I repeat to myself when I’m at points in my life where I want change and it goes, ‘no Sweet, you don’t really want to be a firefighter’.  There’s no way, at any point in my life, I could ever have been a firefighter, but there were times when I wanted it with all my heart  – I’m five foot tall, weight 55kg and don’t like climbing ladders – not really firefighter material!  Like most people sometimes I seek complete change, a totally new direction, a new me.  But change doesn’t happen by deciding to be a firefighter – change happens when you choose to think a little harder about the priorities in your life, when you choose how to feel about what you do and whether it makes you happy or sad or useful or used.

Wisdom, or common sense?  I couldn’t possibly say.  Right now, after some major changes in my life, I’m trying to decide where to go from here.  But with the maturity that is one of the few good things about getting older, I’ve decided to take my time making my decision.  I’m watching the world, trying this and that, following the weather and the drift of the lives around me.  Before long, I’ll find myself somewhere – there’s no rush, is there?  

Maybe I should be a firefighter..?

Love and peace, Sweet

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Beyond the Frame

I was at a major sporting event earlier this year.  Very glamorous, sunny, exciting, vibrant.  I ate it all up with my eyes and my mind.  Absorbed it, drank it in, catalogued and filed it away to pick over in the days, months, years to come.  As I was doing so, I noticed that nearly all of the people around me were using their phones, their cameras, their iPads to take photos, video, etc.  No doubt the man next to me had Instagrammed (is that a verb?!) and posted instantly to Facebook on his mobile given that he barely looked at the track for the first few laps.  His entire flist knew exactly where he was, exactly what he had just seen.  And it all got me to wondering.

Do we have better memories today, than we did in the past?  Or is our instantly recorded and then published life, making big events forgettable rather than memorable?  I read about wedding blogging recently, where couples live blog their big day.  What?!  Seriously?  Why would you do that?  Surely those people that want to share your special day will be there with you, forging their own memories, reinforcing yours in the years to come.  I can still recall my wedding day in detail 25 years later.  The bits that matter, the joy that persists.  And honestly, who but me and my husband is really, truly interested in that detail?  More to the point, those memories, those emotions are private, not to be displayed to an uncaring, unforgiving FaceBook/Pinterest/Instagram/YouTube world.

As the daughter of a film archivist, I grew up with the moving image very much a part of my day to day life.  Images, sounds, colour, the recording and preservation of the past respected and treasured.  The image is a powerful thing.  It can help us retrieve memories of our own, it can help us understand the past, it can help us explore the present down to minute detail, and even let us see into the future, with images beamed from light years away in space.  But at some times in our lives, our eyes are the only things capable of recording what’s important to us, what we will treasure in the future, what we will recall as we age.  The pixels available to me within my camera can capture a framed view of the Monaco Grand Prix, with edges and a specific depth of field.  My eyes and my brain can experience something my camera never can – the smell of the fuel, the heat of the sun, the pure brilliance of the sky, the vivid colours and sensations of an ‘event’.  No camera can record the emotion I felt at being in Monaco on race day.  It was a long held dream finally realised, and there’s no camera on earth that can capture how it really felt.

I worry that we are viewing a biased world for the most part with our photographing and capturing obsession.  We are sold the idea that we can photograph and keep everything, that we can share the whole of our lives, and encourage others to share in our experiences, but I fear that we are losing the bigger picture of life.  I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t do it, but I do think we need to look out of the frame a little more.  We can put down our smart phones, switch off our iPads and engage with life, real life, in all its glory, colour and vibrancy.  And maybe, beyond the edges of our ‘frames’ we will see a little something extra, something special, that everyone else might be missing.

Stick

My father had a walking stick.  He hated it with a passion and it is my plan, now he’s dead, to burn it in one of my stoves over the winter.  The old man would appreciate the gesture.  The stick symbolised everything he hated about getting old, and there was a lot he hated about getting old.  We bought the stick together in a local shop that supplies leather goods, sports equipment and the like, which has been established for years – a sort of cradle to grave affair almost.  Well, plimsolls to walking sticks really, but you know what I mean.

My father aged reluctantly.  For many years he was in complete denial.  He was inventive with his ways of overcoming obstacles because he was a clever man, but eventually need overcomes pride.  He was unsteady on his feet and a stick was the only solution – don’t get me started on the time he needed a wheelchair, there’s a whole other blog post there – but it was welcomed reluctantly and with poor grace.  He would use it as a prod, poking at things in shops or using it to convey his disdain of litter on the ground or obstacles in his way.  The thump of his stick against his neighbour’s errant wheeley bin part of his weekly ritual.  He would use it when seated to rest his hands and chin, much like a small child and would play with it, swinging it on the wrist cord this way and that – repetitive and irritated.  He would point with it, swear at it, swing it like a golf club.  He was furious when hospitalised one time and the staff took it away because he wasn’t steady enough to use a stick.  They insisted he needed a Zimmer frame, or as he called it a ‘dimmer frame’.  I was never sure if the mispronunciation was a joke or whether he genuinely thought that was what they were called.  Either way, he assured us he’d be back using his stick before long as only ‘old’ people use dimmer frames.  He was 91.

I hated the stick too.  I hated what it meant about his health, what it meant about how our relationship was changing, would change.  Would end.  At first the stick was just used to steady his gait; then he came to lean more heavily on it changing his posture, his walk; next he used it to lever himself out of a chair.  Eventually, even the stick couldn’t help him get around.  Nor could the Zimmer which he used for only a short time.  A stick couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening, and we both knew that from the day we bought it.  It was why we both hated it so much.

Now the winter days are coming and the days shortening, I shall burn the stick.  And no doubt hear dad rejoicing at its demise.

‘Burn the bloody thing,’ he’d say. ‘About time, too.’

Back up your files – it’s not just something people say…

So, I’ve suffered another loss.  Given my scale of loss these past twenty months, it’s not really that big a deal.  Were I not up to my eyes in a maelstrom of emotion, I would be angry at the hard drive failure that stole my video project from a while back and my stupidity at not backing up, checking up, making sure.  I tried very hard to be philosophical about it on Saturday – to accept that all is transient; that I have the memory of what I achieved, that I can recall the pleasure and joy I had at seeing a creative project come together, reach an audience and take me further along the road of learning.  Now, reflecting on the sad state of affairs that is my ex hard drive, I am just sad.  Again.  I’m tired of being sad…

I know I should have made sure it was backed up.  I know I should have transferred it from the laptop to my desktop.  I knew how important it was to me, and yet… and yet.   And because I know all of these things, I wonder why I didn’t do them?  Creativity is a crazy beast – it’s as exciting as anything else I know but the excitement of creativity is so hard to recapture.  That piece was such a joy to do, such a surprise to achieve, such a precious thing. Maybe, because of that, I was always destined to have to let go of this piece of work.  Maybe it’s an abject lesson in letting go of all that must leave us eventually.

Or maybe when all is said and done, it was just a hard drive failure and not a philosophical moment.

Back up your files folks – it’s not just something people say…

Love and peace

Sweet

How not to Talk to the Recently Bereaved

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of condolences following my father’s death.  The majority have been eloquent, sensitive and thoughtful and whilst they are not easy to receive, they do what they say on the tin – offer comfort and respect.  But there are a few, mostly the verbal ones, that have struck me by degrees as trite, insulting and in a few cases hurtful.

I honestly think that most people have no idea what they sound like when they offer condolences, but I believe people are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.  For most, having to talk to someone in the midst of loss is a rare occurrence.  For many it brings up painful memories for themselves and makes knowing what to say extremely difficult.  All of these things are understandable.

But in an effort to educate, elucidate and get the bloody thing off my chest, I offer a short course in ‘How not to talk to the recently bereaved.’

Example 1

‘You’ll never get over it’.  F*ck off, yes I will.  You want to condemn me to a lifetime of feeling like this?  Better to say, ‘you must feel awful right now, but you won’t feel like this forever’.  

Many people seem to think that getting over a bereavement is inappropriate.  But as something of a veteran (all four grandparents, both parents, both brothers, both uncles, one aunt, and one cousin) I can tell you that ‘getting over it’ is not wrong.  And you don’t get over it as such, you learn to live with it, without them.  And living well to respect the memory of those that have gone is the point.  Feeling okay about your own life with or without your loved ones is the point.

Example 2

‘You’ll get through it, you’re such a strong person’.  Tricky one this.  Sounds complimentary doesn’t it?  Sounds like the speaker has faith in your ability and knows you well.  Actually, what they’re saying is, ‘please don’t break down in front of me, I can’t handle it.’  What it does is make you hide your nasty horrible grief from view and keep it suppressed.  Years of therapy – cha ching.  

Strength is absolutely the last thing the bereaved have.  They need support, love, encouragement until they find their strength again – which they will.  Wish them courage, offer them help, don’t give them the responsibility of handling this alone because they’re so ‘strong’.  Do normal things with them, talk about the person that has died – bring tissues and you be strong, because one day you may not be so strong yourself and then you will understand why it’s such a horrible thing to suggest that it’s not okay to show weakness.

Example 3

‘You’ll never be the same again.’  Okay, maybe I will be changed but isn’t the loss of a loved one enough – you want to make the bereaved think they’re going to lose themselves too?  Cruel beyond words.  

Telling people they will never be the same again is pointless in fact.  We all change, all the time.  Not just when someone dies.  It implies that you have no value as yourself without the person you’ve lost and is such a strange thing to say.  Better to say, ‘life will be different for you now.’

And finally Example 4

That script that you read from, when you work for a bank, building society, insurance company, whatever call centre it is?  The phrase is ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ not ‘I apologise for your loss.’  Oh honey, it really wasn’t your fault!  Did make laugh that one tho’…

Love and peace
Sweet

Lists, and the writing thereof

I love lists.  I have a weekly To Do list – handwritten – that I happily work my way down during the week.  It’s all there, in my A5 notebook, week after week.  I can look back and see what’s been achieved, what’s yet to do, what keeps being carried forward to the next week, and how long I’ve been putting off doing the accounts.

This year, however, there’s been a gap in my To Do lists since the first week of January.  Because my dad died; and when someone is dying, it appears that there’s both a lot to do, and absolutely nothing to do.

At the age of 91, ‘the old man’, as he affectionately called himself, was steadily becoming frail, both in body, mind and spirit.  The time had come, and was acknowledged by all, including himself, and so began the longest two weeks of my life.  I had read somewhere that when someone is dying, normal life needs to be put on hold.  Turns out, this is absolutely true.  Not only is dying a very personal process, it is also a very unpredictable one.  According to the Hospice nurse I chatted with, some people will die almost as soon as the prognosis is made, some will fight and fight and appear unable to complete the final stage.  There is nothing To Do except wait, and watch, and respect the process.

After he died, of course, there was a whole new list of things To Do.  Funeral arrangements, financial arrangements, people to notify, a eulogy to write.  I have a separate book for these To Do lists.  I find a need a degree of separation, lest my life becomes consumes by the process and the practicality.  Most of the things on that particular To Do list have been accomplished already with more to come as the finances and legal details conclude, but I find myself at last free enough to start to write in my own personal To Do notebook again.  So far, aside from paying the Gas Bill, it remains steadfastly empty.  Because it seems that what’s left to do once a life ends, is both a lot and nothing at all.

Love and peace,

Sweet

Books, mostly…

My father keeps giving me things.  Books mostly, and in truth books are what our whole lives have revolved around.  Books and movies.

Dad’s 91 and in poor health; next stop nursing home.  Stop after that… well, the big cinema in the sky, I guess.  Or whatever it is that you personally believe in.  He’s frail and tired and he wants things passed on, wants to do the one thing in his life that he’s always done, preserve the past.  When all you have is the past, it’s the only thing left to hold onto I guess.  So he keeps giving me things.  Books, mostly.

I came home with a stack of them the other day, and these I feel, are the ones that signal his acknowledgement that the end of things is approaching.  They are books written by a close personal friend, a friend to my parents and a friend to our family.  A friend who has seen plenty of triumph and disaster himself, both professionally and personally.  A man who values my father’s friendship highly.  And therein lies the rub.  He’s my father’s friend – the messages he’s handwritten in the front of the books he’s written, the little acknowledgements to my father, my mother and to their shared friendship and interests, belong to my father, not to me.  But I feel duty bound to hold onto them.  Preserve the past…

Where does the drive to preserve like this come from?  I have ornaments belonging to my mother who died 26 years ago.  I hated them as a child, and I hate them now.  They sit in a drawer in my house taking up space – never seeing the light of day.  But they’re still there.   They are of no value, not even sentimental.  I can remember them, remember my mother, without them being on show.  So why do I keep them in a drawer?

I know that before long, I’ll have to clear dad’s house.  One way or another, whether it’s to fund his nursing home care, or once he dies, the house he’s lived in for 25 years will have to be emptied and sold.  How do you reduce a life to a few boxes, a few plastic bags?  It’s something we all ultimately come to – when the end comes, what do you do with everything?  In the words of the great Monty Python, ‘you come into life with nothing, you leave with nothing, so what have you lost?  Nothing!’  But the truth is that we all have stuff.  Houses full of stuff, and someone else has to make a decision about that stuff once we’re no longer around.

What do I do with every letter dad ever got about his employment?  What do I do with his gas bills, phone bills, bank statements, army papers and other detritus dating back to the year dot?  There are folders in his filing drawer that still have my mother’s handwriting on them.  ‘Dad Pension’, one says.  I guess reducing a whole life to nothing, wiping it out, is perhaps the hardest job of all.  It feels like a betrayal of all that an individual was.

I suppose the reason dad keeps giving me things, is because he trusts me.  To preserve the past for him.  To preserve his past.  The process of letting go is traumatic, and will be traumatic, but it can be extremely beneficial.  I’m a great believer in a good old clear out.  I’ve always thought it makes space for other things to come in.  Dad is a preserver of the past whereas I’ve always wanted to look to the future – to the shiny things up ahead.  I don’t think it’ll help me much in the short term when the house clearing has to be done, but long term, I feel strongly that whilst the past needs to be remembered and treasured, respected and learned from, it should not be preserved at any cost.

There is no point in keeping shelf after shelf of books, when I can treasure memories of shared conversations; there is no point in making room for boxes of papers and ornaments, when a handwritten card or photo can evoke past holidays, or Christmases; there is no point in preserving the physical, when what we all crave is the emotional.  It’s the absent hug we miss, not the piles of books; it’s the pet name our parents called us that will be lost forever, not the best china; it’s the kind words of wisdom and support that disappear – who gives a stuff about the ornaments?  I remember dad giving me things that had belonged to my mother after she died.  ‘It was your mum’s, so you should have it.’  I didn’t want them.  I still don’t – what I wanted, was my mum.  And it’s the same now.

Dad keeps giving me things.  Books mostly – I don’t really want them…