On re-finding my words (The Recovery Series)

(I’ve been fighting with the pain for a few days so haven’t been able to put anything up for the week. It’s better now, so I have a few more things to say.)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital doesn’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain

There are some things that I enjoy that most of the people around me do not find in the least bit interesting. This often means that most people in my profession find me incredibly boring, or probably think that I’m up my own arse most of the time. I have very little interest in fashion, celebrity, and for the most part know not very much about theatre. Theatre is one of those beautiful things that just happens to me; it’s tidal, usually swooping in and enveloping me, casting me about in its currents, sometimes dashing me upon rocks, finally spitting me out on a distant unknown shore or washing me up on the same old familiar sands. I don’t feel the need to understand theatre, or to engage with it in anything other than this ethereal and unstable dance. We are lovers, eternally so, without the need for obsession. And we are private, so other people’s relationship with theatre has no bearing on us. I can’t name names, don’t know what songs come from where, don’t know what’s coming in or what’s going out, never know what’s going on. I am always an outsider at parties and opening nights. But, you cannot make important that which is already a part of you. It is like trying to make your leg important, or your heart, or your breast. It’s already there, you don’t think about it. You don’t have to study your leg, or go on about it. You don’t have to become an expert in other people’s legs. They have them, that’s ‘good-enough’ knowledge. It would be an inexplicable loss if my leg were to be removed. The same with theatre. It’s like my leg. I need it, but I don’t have to talk about it all the time.

But I also have another leg.

So, I’m a big, BIG, fan of psychology and philosophy and all things mind, subjective and objective. And I’m also a great big fan of reading textbooks and writing essays and doing research, which is mostly incongruent with the interests of my peers. So I keep my psychological musings and excitement  of learning for long, drawn-out, wine-fuelled talks over the dinner table with my loving, patient knight. And he’s always up for a good debate, if only because, but for being incredibly agreeable in every other sense, he’s intellectually argumentative.

But one of the things that I have found that is a side effect of pain and medication is that words go awry. On the page, they swim and do a merry ceilidh, coming in and going out, linked together and then far apart. My eyes have to chase them, body tackle them to the white space, pin them down wrestler-stylee, by which time meaning has become fed-up and flounced off in a huff. Getting to the end of a sentence takes an age. And the spoken word has taken its fair share of the Tramadol effect. My spoonerism rate has skyrocketed and sometimes I trail off because I’ve forgotten where I put my hat. I haven’t been speaking on the phone, because for the most part, I don’t make sense, or I forget to make sense.

We spend so much time looking for meaning and purpose, in our lives, our actions, our thoughts. But I spare a thought today for how important words are in the construction of that meaning. The stories we tell, to ourselves, of ourselves to others, all rely on a common understanding of the way in which we put words together. Our knowledge, our identity, our personality and even our memories are put together by words on a string. What we know and how we know it is transmitted by words, acquired through words which fire the neurons that affect the other neurons, that whizz and bang through the finite organ that is our brain into the infinite regions that is our mind. If we lose our words, would our pictures suffice? If we do not use our words, would meaning suffer?

I am happy that I can continue to put these words down on the page. But don’t try to have a conversation with me right now, my words just keep on failing me.

Published in: on March 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On change (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital doesn’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain.

There has been a lot of change lately. In these few days alone the concept of change has become solid to me. I have become acutely aware about the difficulty of change. People often say it, as if it’s easy – ‘If you don’t like the way you look, change your diet’, ‘If you don’t like your job, quit and change to another one’, ‘If you don’t like the way you think, change your mind and think a new thought’. Happy-clappy, self-helpy, new-agey literature is full of change for those who are hard pressed to spend their spare change on yet another dust attractor for laden bookshelves of ‘better-you’.

Change is hard.

It’s difficult to change my position on the bed, which always wakes the angry boob-ferret, who immediately protests with his inner scratching. The smallest adjustment is a struggle and brings about a merry dance of negotiation with space, time and gravity. This minor change is excruciating. Changing my clothes is another challenge, with that task comes friction, and friction of any kind is not nice. Friction is charged, causing pain on the rubbed and resentment of the source of the rubbing. Only hurt remains. Changing the dressing on the scar has been a beautiful battle, it meant touch and closeness and that brought with it a fresh hell. I wanted the source of my soreness to remain motionless, to calcify in its present state, harden and become strong, without the interference of hand just right of my heart.

Aren’t all those reasons why we never want to change?

It’s easier to stay the way we are. We desire new bodies every first of January but want to remain untouched by discomfort. We shun movement in favour of epicurean delights (What would the Epicureans say!) because we just don’t have the time, the energy, the motivation, the will. We will accept unfair situations and decline to negotiate our sense of worth in unequal and uneven relationships because we don’t want to upset anyone or ruffle any feathers. We toughen our souls and allow ourself to remain out of reach, become callous and sharp, so that our tiny, frightened, beautiful hearts doesn’t become broken yet another time. We live in fear, because fear is comfortable. Perhaps it is not so painful now, because we have become accustomed to the pain of not getting what we deserve. Because that is all we deserve.

Change is painful. Not changing is even more so.

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 7:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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On being in pain (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital doesn’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain.

F**k me – it hurts!

A chunk of me is gone. But it was an evil chunk so I’m not really going to miss it. I’m all taped up and I don’t know the size of the incision. The surgery took twice as long than was previously planned because there was twice as much to take out. The alien beings spawned and multiplied, building their little alien colony, planning to invade this new earth called Me. The heroic ‘Bruce Willis’ in a surgical gown flew in on a scalpel and saved mankind. Well, womankind. And like every Bruce Willis movie, it was not without carnage.

The pain is really quite something. And that’s the only way I can describe it. It’s really just…quite…something. If it was a colour, it would be something florescent, and bright, like reflective yellow-orange-green-red. Which is the colour my face turns when the spasms hit me (or would turn if I wasn’t this fetching shade of burnt-caramel). If it was a sound, it would be sledgehammer-traffic-being-scraped-across-a-blackboard combined with something from Phillip Glass. If it were a taste, it would be fennel.

Movement is my enemy. Clothes are my enemy. Air is my enemy. Everything that touches or bounces causes me to turn with sailor-like profanity on my poor cat, whose disdain for me has now turned into a mild amusement as he tries to use the very same pained body area as a scratching post. My beloved has shortened his visits upstairs, for fear that Exorcist-like scenes await him. Or it might be the anti-embolism socks that the after-care nurses, who call me daily, insist I wear because I can’t go dancing around just yet. I tried to plead with them that my life was just as sedentary, or worse, pre-operation. They’re not having any of it. These socks are probably not the least attractive item of clothing that I’ve worn in my lifetime, but they won’t do anything for my love life. Which is for the best right now.

It feels as if they have removed the man-eating cells and replaced it with a ferret. A really angry ferret. A ferret who really loved the outside world, running around with all his ferret friends, having a merry ferret romp, and who is now extremely perplexed and very dissatisfied with this new arrangement of having to live inside of a right boob. I think he wants out of this situation. And he is reneging on his contract in the most physical, claw-y, bite-y manner possible.

There is a lesson in this pain. And I promise I will find it. I just cannot find it right now. I am having a fight with a ferret.

Published in: on February 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On becoming reconnected (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital doesn’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain.

I went to the hospital on my own. It made perfect sense to me. There was no reason for anybody else to leave home at 7:00 in the morning and get on a train and then get into a taxi only to be told to sit in the waiting lounge for what may be 8 hours (and it was). My knight in shining armour would be called when needed, and would arrive perfectly on time, even if he did go to the wrong hospital and would finally get to the correct hospital half an hour after he said he would be there in 3 or 4 minutes time.

And somewhere in the quiet, I got very lonely. I realised that I hadn’t really heard from anyone. In the hushed ward, I suddenly was very alone. Well, not really, there was Lynne in the bed to my left, who refused to take out her contact lenses, or to remove her nail polish and makeup, reading Hello magazine and telling me how little confidence she had in everybody there because she couldn’t have a coffee and 9:30 was usually breakfast time and a nurse of 40+ years experience could barely get up from the floor after helping her put on her anti-embolism socks which she could have just done herself. It was difficult to be alone in Lynne’s company. But Hello called her back and the silence ensued and I went back to feeling rather sorry for myself.

Confession – I am not always close to my family, both by proximity and by relationship. I love them all, but I am a terrible communicator. I don’t like telephones, I rarely write letters or cards or emails, unless it’s business related or urgent. I don’t remember birthdays or special dates (it was about 8:00 in evening before I pootled downstairs to my loving prince’s office and asked if it was our anniversary – we had both forgotten). My family lives in different timezones, and we’re, none of us, good at counting. I’m basically a rubbish member of my own family.

But I have got a good one.

My mother led the charge, up hours before she should ever be, calling all to prayer and showering us in her unwavering faith of a God mightier and more good than had ever been conceived of by the mind of man. She has enough faith for everyone on my ward. Man, she has enough faith for everyone who needs it and more than a little for those who think they don’t. There she was, on my phone that I should not have been using on the ward. My brother, a man of few words, most of those funny, was there with his love and his thoughts soon after. My baby sister, all capital letters and exclamation marks, joyously admonishing me to GET BETTER SOOOONNNN!!!! YOU’LL BE JUS FINNNEEEE!!!! and making me giggle, which rumbles the butterflies in my tummy and jolts me with a heady mix of anxiety and elation.

I heard from my older sister the day after. She said she had been hesitant to write since finding out that I was going to the hospital. I understand. I truly do. She’s there too, sending me her good thoughts, sure that I will have a smile on my face.

Under the gleam of the knife, my family was there. Perfectly there. Perfectly on time. Just like my knight.

Published in: on February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On becoming sedated (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital doesn’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain. 

Day surgery. I love the concept. It seems as if it’s all sorted in the matter of a day. What comes next in terms of healing is beside the point, but the day is all that’s needed to put things right. Politicians have surgeries. Police have surgeries. It’s a neat little concept.

We all got there at 7:45 and were taken, one by one, into a marvellously pristine ward. We were all positioned in chairs, neatly to the right of our beautifully made beds (which turned out the be the trolleys on which we would all be getting whatever cut open or cut out, asleep or not, but whatever, again, beside the point). Just to the front of us, out of reach, were our own, individual blood pressure machines. It was our very own medicinal ‘Cell Block Tango’ and I kept expecting someone to burst into song. The order of it was mesmerising. There was a single, polite cough into the silence. And then the overture began. The conversations trickled in then swelled to a steady crescendo. Each made their entrance – nurses, anaesthetists, doctors, surgeons, more nurses. The chorus of questions in counterpoint – names, dates of birth, allergies, removal of jewellery and makeup (though who could bother to put on jewellery and makeup at 7:45 in the morning, I would never know), previous surgeries, knowledge of the procedures, consent forms, ifs, ands, why, buts and wherefores. The costumes were put on, the gowns – open at the back, anti-embolism socks – for those pesky veins, robes – to hide the openings at the back, slippers – to complete the sock look, wrist band – to remind you of who you were meant to be playing in this scene. And just like that the hubbub abated, as the swirling orchestra of gowned and masked professionals went off to prepare for their own special scenes. Astounding.

And then the wait.

I took with me my textbooks for my child development course for my psychology degree. I figured if I had to wait for four hours (and I did), I might as well make the most of the time and the quiet. There was a little fear gliding around the room. But fear, for the most part, is silent, especially in a room full of dignified women holding desperately on to whatever dignity remained in an open-backed gown. I also took with me one of the best books I have ever owned, a Christmas present from one who loves me more than I will ever deserved to be loved. It is called ‘Philosophy For Life – and Other Dangerous Situations’ by Jules Evans. And it is an awesome book.

In it I was reading about the Stoics, about our overly optimistic expectations and the art of lowering it. About managing our anger and the flexibility of our will to know that we cannot control the other but we can control how we receive that with which we are presented in this world. That we can know ourselves, or at least come to know ourselves, and that we do not have to mindlessly be governed by emotion or irrational thought. This is not an argument for thinking over feeling, but for the existence of both without prejudice or control. I read about the modern Stoics’ constant efforts, and of each man’s journey to live well in the life that he was given and thought that there was hope for this world yet. And I wondered if I could ever truly understand how to live in the moment with peace, relinquishing control, or need, or pride and understanding that wherever I was, was where I was, and nothing more.

And then it was my turn to be wheeled in. And I chatted with my doctor and my anaesthetist about their children and the great hope I have for the young people of this world who will have to be more creative than we have ever had to be to make a life for themselves (that in another post). We talked about psychology and theatre, religion and wars. And then my doctor said, ‘But at least today, for this moment, in this room, there is no war. Here in this moment, there is only peace.’ My universe tilted ever so slightly and I could see exactly the meaning of it all; people coming together, in one place, with nothing in common but a common objective, for only a fleeting slice of life that was just a drop in the ocean of history that had already been made and was yet to be made. It meant everything and nothing all at the same time. And I didn’t have to control or understand any of it.

The first of my anaesthetic was injected then. And I said aloud, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise that it would work this quickly.’


Published in: on February 22, 2013 at 7:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On becoming body aware (The Recovery Series)

I’m lying in my bed. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember pain like this. Even the brilliant drugs that they give you in the hospital don’t work. So what best to do with pain but to write. This is my recovery series. It mightn’t make much sense. I blame the pain.

In the middle of last year, my breast started to bleed.

Just like that, no explanation, no trauma, no illness. It just started to bleed. I dutifully went to my GP, but as appointments are hard to come by, by the time I got into the doctor’s office, the bleeding had stopped. I was told to go away and to keep and eye on it. I trust doctors, so I went away and forgot all about it. At Christmas time, the bleeding returned. Back to the doctor. Quickly to the hospital. An examination, ultrasound and mammogram later and soon I was in surgery.

Abnormal cells.

Cells, so tiny, so significant. All merrily working away, specialising, doing their thing. All with their function, single-mindedly fulfilling their only known duty – to build, to grow, to survive. They have no meaning, no purpose, no malice. They are just cells, merrily living their cell-life, doing their cell-thing.

But their cell-thing could kill me.

You become so acutely aware of your ‘self’ when you are told that your ‘self’ is broken in one way or another. I became so aware of my skin, aware of sensations on and in my body. I became aware of my breasts, and this time not just to bemoan their size and the inadequacies of engineering that befell them regularly. My breasts – they were mine. And inside of them something was attacking me.

Except it wasn’t attacking me. It was just doing what it did. It didn’t have me in mind. It wasn’t holding a grudge against me. It wasn’t plotting or planning my demise. It wasn’t jealous, or fed up of me. It wasn’t trying to rise above me, or hold me back. It was just doing what it did, in its own way, with no knowledge of my existence. In fact, with no knowledge at all.

So I became body aware, not in the sense of finally understanding the frailty of it all, the underlying fragility of life. I knew that anyway, you merely had to turn the news on and watch tens of thousands die, or just the one, senselessly shot by one who loved her the most. I didn’t need reminding that ours was a feeble flame, shaking against a mighty wind, resilient but vulnerable. But I became aware of the meaningless-ness of things. Of the fact that things just are, that they happen and then other things happen and that this life is just a series of happenings one after the other, affected by or affecting other things. And that all we can do is get on with it

And hope, because we have knowing, that how we act will have meaning.

And know, because we have hope, the the actions of others might not mean what we think.

Published in: on February 21, 2013 at 8:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hold it loosely

Things are as they are. Yet sometimes there is a reaching in us, a grasping, to be right. Sometimes we churn ourselves up when another tells us what is right with that we think is wrong. Inside, we object to their opinion. We are angry that they feel they have the right to tell us what is right. And we bear that anger with us as we carry on with my work. We carry our work and our anger in our tightened fists.

But of course they have a right. The have as much right as anyone else who wants to express themselves and appear as if they come from a place of knowledge. Why should their right upset us so? Why should their opinion trouble us?

It is because we are holding on so tightly to what we feel is ours.

But it is not ours.

Then we get angry at our anger. And we beat ourselves up for not being able to be benign.

But everything is as it is, without meaning. Everyone is trying to make their best way in the world. Everyone is trying to make their mark. So let them.

Why should their mark even slightly affect the way that we are going?

People try to quarrel with you. Leave the quarrel with them. Agree with them, or not. But do not take the quarrel with you when it is past. For they do not do the same.

We must learn to hold it loosely, or else we will perish.

Published in: on January 8, 2013 at 11:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Looking for the tree

The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms. – Thich Nhat Hahn

There is a thing I like to say, often when I am frustrated by something – money, work, uncertainty… I say that ‘all I want to do is to sit beneath a tree. I would live simply on bread and cheese and wine and contemplate life and this world and the people in it. And I would talk to the people and drink from their wisdom. Living simply, beneath my tree.’

I am sure we all do this, when life gets too hustly-bustly and hectic, when things get complicated, when decisions have to be made or can’t be made quick enough, when we’re waiting for life to begin (spot the musical reference anyone?). We all yearn for a quiet life, a beach, a forest, a countryside, a mountain. Somewhere we can gently press the brakes of time, make stillness real and hear nothing but our breath and a whisper of nature. I long for my tree sometimes. And sometimes I make plans to set out to find it.

And strangely, on a crowded train full of people and January sales shopping bags and screaming babies, I sat beneath my tree. I found my tree within the pages of a book, of course, with Charles Mingus streaming into my headphones. Suddenly the shoppers, plastic bags and tears faded into the non-existent breeze and I sat beneath my tree and chatted for a while with Epictetus.

And there, for twenty minutes, I was happy.

I hope you find your tree.

Published in: on January 6, 2013 at 9:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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Losing it…Finding it (Keeping my Promise.)

Confession time.

I’ve taken a small hiatus from the library, in order to go sing myself into a frenzy in a series of concerts. Four cities, four days. That’s how we roll.

I am in the company of great singers. GREAT singers. I am supported by wonderful orchestras and a dream Musical Director. THIS is what I want to do. Lift my voice, rejoice.

And I am in trouble.

I am frightened, and that fright means that I go out there and what I rehearse is not what is coming out. And the people around me say that it’s great, and I say that it’s not and they get a bit fed up of me, and I get a lot down on myself and I tell myself that people are right.

A while ago, in another job, somebody told me that I almost didn’t get the job, because the producer thought that, as far as being a singer goes, I had ‘lost it’. This producer was someone I had known, and trusted, who complimented me to my face, and who, as far as I was being told, was tearing me down behind my back. I started the show and lo and behold, prophesy became truth.

I lost it.

My voice left me at the start of my run there and I did the entire thing, raspy, limited, relying on performance and character and every day my soul light diminished a little. By the end of that show, my soul light was out.

I did learn a few other lessons along the way. I learned that I could fail. And that I could stand with that failure. I learned to laugh at myself. Those lessons came all too easily.

But I began to think that perhaps they were right. Perhaps, I did in fact lose it, and this was somewhat confirmed when I landed a role that required no singing of me, required not much of me but attention. I could pay attention. I knew how to do that much. I was put neatly and quietly into a little corner and there I stayed. For a very long time.

And now, I have to sing. And old fears are making themselves heard and become manifest. I felt I had to write it, as I sit here with pain in my throat and no solid reason for the pain but fear alone. I had to be honest about the fact that I feel that I am failing again and proving the naysayers right.

Here’s the thing.

They may be right. Perhaps my voice, with age and use and abuse and all, has in fact given up the ghost. I know for certain that the young have come and my woulda-coulda-shouldas have been sidelined to whimsy and wistful melancholia. It’s the theatrical Circle of Life. I have been savaged by the hyenas of age. I must learn a new trick.

But I have character and experience with me. And because I have learned to laugh with myself and at myself, I invite the laughter from others too. Perhaps I am not even failing, and have set myself too hard a task, to high a summit to scale, without taking into account my own limitations. A fear becomes diminished when it is named. I do know that I have found my fear and through it a courage to play the fool in front of you, forever.

Do not expect too much from my voice. The notes may no longer reside there. But, I intend to use my voice still. Because there is still so much I have to say.

Published in: on December 29, 2012 at 2:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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Doing what works

Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am currently in training to become a counselling psychologist. In my skills practice the other day, I got this feedback from my peer who was observing my session:

“I’m still unsure of your facial expression. I don’t know if it’s congruent with the gravity of the situation. The way you are really shouldn’t work here. But somehow, it does…”

Firstly I am grateful for their constructive criticism, it is the only way that I can build my skills and really know that I am presenting a spirit of openness and genuine concern to my clients and their concerns. Secondly, that statement really sparked something in my mind, a seed of an idea, that has taken root and started to bud towards becoming a central pillar in my practice and in my daily life.

In sharing with the class at the end, I offered this:

I know that we are given tools and rules for these situations. I know we must be mindful of so many things – body language, tone of voice, eye contact, open questions –  in order to ensure that the signals we send are clear to those we are trying to help. But I also know this for sure. By being told that what I do should not work, but does, I came to know that I had to remember to bring my unique self to the relationship. What I was being was congruent with myself, congruent with how positively I viewed this other person, even in light of their situation. I view humanity positively; I think, like Carl Rogers, that we do dream towards our best selves, and that we strive to the fullest expression of our individuality. Because of that, I do not frown or gaze intently at the other person. I wear my expression gently, even positively, and sometimes I even smile. I smile when the going gets tough, because I think ‘I am here for you. Know that I can bear it. Know that I believe that you can bear it. I will be present for you as you figure this out’. I believe, totally and completely, that I have to bring what is uniquely myself to the encounter, that I may have a personal and particular expression that I bring to the caring. And that is untaught.

It shouldn’t work. But it does.

What unique aspect of your self are you bringing to your difficult situation today?

Published in: on October 30, 2012 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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