Category Archives: Be not idle

On Not Making Space In My Head

Part of the high wire act that is resilience, relies,  I believe, on the ability to carve out a new alcove for the bad stuff that happens to us.  Bereavement, bankruptcy, broken-heartedness and other traumas cannot be simply shaken from our pelts as a wet dog might do; rather we must process our feelings and thoughts through over time, until they come to rest, somewhat uneasily, on a pale cold stone lintel in the back of our brains.

Yet there are some things which are such an affront to our natural natures, to our compassionate hearts, to our generosity that we must not make internal space for them. Outrages we must not learn to live with and unethical acts that we must resist.

Trump’s executive orders are such acts.

Yesterday’s spilled ink, coming on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, signified a travesty.  Closing America to people who are already on their way there.  Closing America to people who already have status to remain.  Closing America to people with the wrong kind of nationality, or dual nationality.  Closing America to refugees… this is an act we cannot accept on behalf of every single person who finds themselves turned away from an airport, detained at an airport, put on a plane away from the United States.

Those people cannot resist the beast.  But we must.

I was reminded tonight that my grandmother was a refugee in Malta in the First World War. Fortunately for her, the Red Cross were there on the island to assist.  My grandmother told me once, briefly, something of sleeping in tents and having little to do in camp. On the wall in my sitting room there hangs a rudimentary tableau, sewn from sacking and scraps of cloth that my grandmother’s fellow refugees who were Armenian, created. It is an Egyptian scene, with pyramids,a snake and a line of mules, overlaid with the suggestion of coercion, represented by a raised whip.  It was made a hundred years ago, yet as I look at it tonight I can almost here the cracking sound.

It is a familiar artefact to me.  It has hung on the wall for long enough that I barely notice it anymore.  But tonight it concentrates my mind, in order that I do not make space in my head for Trump’s vision of hell, whatever comes next.

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An expanded version of a post from August. Or a middle-aged portly woman finds herself in a tin bath.

I haven’t had a bath in years. Really.  It’s been so long that I can’t remember when I last had a soak in a tub.  I know some people swear by bathing for its relaxing properties, candles, bubbles and all that jazz, but the vague memories I have formed of that type of endeavour involve only constant struggling with the hot tap with my toe to top the water up, dropped books and rapidly vanishing foam leaving me face-to-face with all my glories.  It only takes 5 minutes for me to go from feeling like a Zen mistress to a puce and blowsy woman from a Beryl Cook painting.  Cue heaving myself out, strongly channelling, not chilled-out bliss, but instead vibes reminiscent of the poem The Kraken by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been soap-dodging for a decade.  Hell no.  I am as much a sucker for sweetly-scented body condiments as the next person (have you ever tried the divine Korres shower gel range?).  It’s just that I did not have a walk-in shower in my life until I was 37 and since then, the whole wallowing thing (which to be fair I did almost exclusively for nearly 4 decades) has totally lost whatever charm it may have held – which to be honest – is not a lot.

So after nearly another decade of showering in splendour in Essex, I found myself this morning, somewhat to my surprise, sitting in an enamelled metal bath in mid-Wales. Wales was not a surprise (something to do with the summer holidays), but the bath was.

I don’t know for sure, but it seems like I may have uncovered some kind of special and hitherto secret talent in myself, because booking a modest holiday let with no shower seems like it should be an impossible feat.  Try it sometime – everywhere has a shower.  Everywhere.

However, I do not preach the TED brand of positive psychology for nothing, so I was not to be defeated, although the horror of the situation I had placed myself in had already led to going unwashed for the full 24 hours since arrival. The 24 hour delay had enabled me to do two key things: discern how much hot water there was likely to be available for a thorough sheep dip, plus decide when such an operation might be best timed, considering I was in competition for the scarce resources with two teenage girls (a species not known for general abstemiousness in the ablution department).

This morning, around 9.30 a.m. I took the plunge. My first thought was that the bath was not big.  Or, worse, I was ample.  My second thought as I lowered myself gingerly into the water was deep gratitude for the vintage rubber shower head attachment that I had hopefully jammed on the taps.  At least I was not having to press a rented kitchen receptacle into service to rinse my hair.  My third thought was: I am awfully fat.  On paper, I like to attach this rider – I am awfully fat when, and this is important, when I am folded over like a soggy burrito in a small bath in Wales.

In a shower, I am majestic. I stand at the altar of the apothecary and anoint my hair, face and body with botanical essences and water streams over me at exactly the right temperature (unless someone has put the washing machine or dishwasher on downstairs, or has marched into the bathroom without a by your leave to clean their teeth and turned on the tap) but you get my drift.

In the shower, there is no pale saggy flesh pressed against the side of a cold white enamel tub.

In the shower I think great thoughts and I am triumphant.

In the bath I cannot think about anything except when the hot water might run out, whether this bath is truly small or something worse, and why does so much hair come out of my head when I wash it.

And the learning from all that, seemed to be this. My body is only my body in a shower.  In a bath, my body belongs to someone else, some stranger.

How we experience the world in our bodies every day is one of life’s marvels. One only needs to watch a baby fascinated by its own feet to feel this might be true.  With the passage of time, because most of us do the same things over and over again, in the same places, we simply don’t notice what our bodies do for us anymore.  We sit in the same chairs, sleep in the same beds, drive the same cars, walk down the same streets, go on the same gym machines and so on.  Rarely, do we suddenly experience our day-to-day physicality in a vastly different way, unless it’s through serious illness or disease.

And when we do, what do we do? My fear is that in a world sated with images of so-called perfection, we jump into judging ourselves unkindly.  We want a body that we know, that we can rely upon, sometimes literally through thick and thin, but how often do we get to forgiving it the vicissitudes of age, those bars of chocolate, the odd cigarette?

For women particularly though there a few high days and holidays to note with a new compassion for our bodies and less harsh judgments – see the baby bump comparison brigade. New lovers, pregnancy and childbirth.  The onset and cessation of menstruation.  These events allow us to see (if we are brave enough to look) and feel our bodies behaving differently.  How we approach these differences is important.  Just as I couldn’t make the tub this morning any different from how it was, neither could I dictate how my body would deal with, say, having babies.  Yes, there were things I could do that might help, or hinder, but in essence it is what it is.  Sometimes things go well; other times, not so much.  The control we think we have is, in many ways illusory.

As I approach my 50s, I try to help myself, my actual self that is the flesh and the blood and the bones of me, where I can. Keeping active, eating ok, getting my sleep, not sleeping in cold open fields, as I longed to do for half my life.  I also do some things that might hinder at times.  But I am aware that I am entering a time in my life where it is better to be kind to my body.  To work in harmony with it.  To be grateful for how it has served me so far.  To use it, as they say, or lose it.  Mainly, to notice it.

Yesterday afternoon, high in the green misty hills near our holiday hideaway, I walked down a slippery wet track in the rain, behind a woman who must have been well into her 80s. She carried a stick and wore sensible shoes.  Mud was spattered up the back of her navy jacket.  The slope was not steep, but the weather was filthy.  Underfoot it was all loose stones, leaf mulch and water.  The woman must have walked up the hill, and was making her way back down.  I fell into step, a short distance behind her and adjusted my speed a little, so as not to overtake her.

She could not have been walking for the purpose of pleasure that day. I had seen her earlier in the morning, also in the rain, also walking back.  Not far, but at her age, far enough.  It struck me she was walking with and against the weather.  The same for her heart, her legs, her lungs: with and gently against.  Making her body work, for the good of itself, for as long as she could.

Age and disease is all about the body letting a person down, one way or another. Why wait until that moment to either regret taking our muscles and sinew for granted over the years, or not getting the most out of them all along.  So what if I had to squeeze myself into that bath or not this morning.   Was it not the same thighs and backside that powered me uphill and down dale for the rest of this day?

Make those bodies work a little people, and notice them kindly along the way. That I suppose is all we could and should do for ourselves, until we can’t anymore.  In the meantime, give a little thanks for the service you get and give, and don’t forget the consolation of a hot shower, or bath, if you must.

There not being any suitable pictures of soggy burritos in baths to illustrate this post freely available on the internet, will  you kindly forgive my eschewing images to accompany this post.

 

DNS, pointers, mapping, transfers and ICANN

I’ve been ‘working’ with the team at RO Literary since April this year.  I put working in inverted commas, because actually they seem to be the only ones who are putting in a professional shift – attending book fairs, workshops, and other writing events, quite aside from all the reading and editing and so on they do for their authors.

I, on the other hand, have been blundering around in the world of social media trying to get my author platform up and running, prior to going to market in the publishing world this autumn.

In the past I thought I had been pretty quick to jump onto the various emerging platforms:

  • Facebook – check
  • Twitter – check
  • WordPress – hell yeah I’ve been on this shit since 2007

But no, as it turned out, my social media was shot to hell with various pseudonyms (Westmead Hawk being my personal favourite) and my blog was a catalogue of personal musings running to the length of *insert the title of favourite doorstop*.

This blog has 1968 published posts and 203 drafts (this being 1969) and surely runs into a word count in excess of 600,o00 words – far too unwieldy to navigate for a slick platform for a writer hoping to make the big time.  Italics intended as irony, just in case you know me and are worried my head has suddenly become super-sized.

The truth is, I squirm at the thought of a platform, but I am a realist.  I believe in the book wot I wrote.  The fact is that is that I was entrusted with a story to tell and I owe it to those people who gave me the story to ensure it reaches the widest possible audience.  Writing was only the half of it.  The other part is getting my act together.

That’s where Sandra and Laura at RO Literary have been invaluable.  Clear-sighted and professional, they tell me what I need to do, and offer to help and support where they can.  Determined, in my usual way, to be as self-sufficient as I can, I buy the domain name I can afford and launch myself headlong into a world in which there is a whole new language that I do not understand, in which I attempt to link the new domain name to the relevant pages on this existing blog.  So far, it’s not been going well.

When you buy a domain name, and either don’t want to or can’t afford to make the registration private, the first thing that will happen is that your inbox will get jammed up with spam offering website building services.  The second thing that will happen is that you will find out the thing you want to do (transfer your new domain to your existing platform) is not possible for 60 days.  It will take you a long time to work this out.  Then you will forget when the 60 day period was up and go through the whole process of finding out how to transfer your now less new domain to your existing one, only to find out you can’t do it for 6 more days.

As part of the process, you might, as I did, do the wrong thing: namely map your existing domain to your not-so-new one. This means no-one can read anything you wrote over the last 9 years for a day or two, until you figure out how to fix your mistake.  Fortunately, no money changed hands in erratum, although I came close.

As I said about 500 words ago, I used to think that I knew what I was doing more or less on social media.  Today, I put my hands up: I don’t.

Will I connect my blog to my new domain jessicamrussell.com?

Will I figure out if Instagram has a ‘retweet’ facility as Twitter does?

Will I ever be brave enough to drop my Facebook pseudonym that I adopted on police advice?

Who knows.

Will my book ever be published?  If RO Literary have anything to do with it – yes.

I am going to play my part as best I can, even if it’s a muddle for me in getting there, so watch this space and enjoy the ride.  And if you were hoping for an explanation of the title of this post – sorry.  I might be in the world of these new words for now, but I am never going to learn the lingo.

 

 

 

‘I saw a sentient being’

So said a scientist on the radio the other morning, as he described being on an oceanic dive whilst coming eyeball-to-eyeball with a sperm whale.  What confused me was that I was sure that not a few moments before he had admonished the radio interviewer for rank  anthropomorphism.

Anyone has ever lived with a pet, is unlikely to find this a revelation.  What animal does not have its own personality, different from another, even of the same species?  Some while ago we had tropical fish.  Even they were distinguishable from one another, not just by their markings or colouring, but by their character alone.

The morning radio interview continued along the usual lines.  We do not know if animals communicate and so forth…  Well actually we do.  They do communicate, but not in ways that humans can understand.  We humans have become so much the stars of our own show that anything that sits beyond our immediate cognisance, our limited range of five empirical senses, is somehow in doubt.

This says nothing at all about the abilities of animals to communicate, or to understand; rather it says everything about the assumed current supremacy of humankind in what could be a more collective cross-species experience of the world.  This seems to me a shame.  There is so much more to life than what we limited creatures can see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

 

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Northern Hands

I have northern hands. They are my grandfather’s on my mother’s side: squared off, sturdy, safe?

I see my grandad spinning a knife on the polished dining table after tea – the bone handle spinning, silver plated SHEFFIELD slowing, slowing, ready to point out the person who would be doing the washing up.

My grandad always did the washing up. And peeled the vegetables.

I do the same, but I don’t spin a knife.

I have his hands and they are northern, Lancashire hands, worn in with the good earth and the pit dust of somewhere like Newton-in-Makerfield. I have the hands that he was yet to grow into as a boy, walking through the Queensway Tunnel under the River Mersey with an uncle the night before it opened in the summer of 1934. I have the hands that dovetailed joints and played ludo and grew vegetables and wrote a PhD about the infinity of numbers. I have those hands, and the stories that lie in them, and I’m grateful.

My daughter's hands

My daughter’s hands

My mother has them too.

In Focus

I took my bicycle out today, for the first time in a long time. Usually I use it as a means to an end; a conveyance from point a to point b. This evening, I just cycled. Until recently, I would have said one of my favourite sounds was the noise of horses’ shod hooves clip clopping down the road – as a child I would have literally run out to see the horses pass by if there had ever been any down my road, which there weren’t.

Ever the thrill seeker, I rode horses, in part for that sound. Time passes, things change. As I rode my iron horse out, wheels turning, I reflected that perhaps now, my favourite sound might be that of my thin road tyres spinning round on tarmac. There’s not a word to describe that noise exactly; it’s not a hum, but like hooves it has its own music.

How little we know ourselves, as we change, almost impercetibly.

Earlier today, I had to fill out a form. It caused me to ask questions of people who know me.

Do I do this? I said.

Do I do that?

Yes, they said.

I thought about it. When I work with people who have bipolar disorder I think, to myself, sometimes I ask them directly, Do you know your bipolar cycle? (Keep up at the back, I’ve moved on from penny farthings.)

Today, for the first time in a long time, I directed the question to myself. Do you know your bipolar cycle I said.

In my late twenties, my psychiatrist (and I was lucky really to have had that one and not another who I had post-natally and who liked me to hope for the best and prepare for worst) asked me to keep a mood diary for some months. He made it as easy as possible for me, I only had to rate my mood with a number on a daily basis; it didn’t take long to complete every day. I think it was when the diary was eventually reviewed during a consultation that he mentioned the phrase rapid cycling bipolar to me. It was the first time I had heard it, and it was of only passing interest. My up and down life continued on its rollercoaster ride.

Before my diagnosis my moods followed what might have been considered typical bipolar, weeks if not months of lows, followed by the same period of highs. My behaviour was classic for both sides of the pendulum, although I never was psychotic – although some on the receiving end of me at that time might disagree.

I am now approaching twenty years of diagnosis. I now accept, as my doctor told me a long time ago, that I fall into the category of ultradian bipolar (where the cycle is broadband speed, hours rather than days even). I’ve also nearly accepted that this is it: mercurial moods are never going to leave me.

Yet after twenty years of managing moods, and where did that time go to for goodness sake, the strangest thing has happened – strange to me anyway. Firstly, the more I have become alert to the mood upswings and downswings, the shorter the periods of the highs and lows. That’s not the strange part – when I know where I am with it, I can do things to counteract the pendulum, and get myself back onto an even keel more quickly. No, the strange thing is that the more I have noticed my moods and managed my moods, the more I have crystallised the very moment of the sudden slip down – I am not quite as sensitised to the rapid ascent up, although talking loudly and quickly is a sure sign that others are quick to point out and take refuge from…

The slipslide downwards is an extraordinary feeling. And it is just that, a feeling. One moment I can be ok, and then suddenly the old unpleasantly familiar feeling creeps into my bones, its bulk pressed in my chest, its hands round my throat. I am reminded then of Philip Larkin’s poem Toads.

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

However, as slimy yuck and toadlike as the feeling is, it is the rapidity of the change in internal weather that throws me off. It’s like crashing your mood car straight into a brick wall, on a fine day, on a good road. Of course, with depressive feelings I know mainly know what to do, and I do it. Hence the bike.

Maybe in another twenty years I will have worked out my triggers. I am often heard to say that I am a very slow learner, but maybe it is more that we really are, in larger parts, often a mystery to ourselves.

dandelion clock

My daughter took this shot, and I love it. The mood and subject speaks of time and focus – like how we drift in and out of focus to ourselves. I have wanted a DSLR camera myself for years, but because of all of the above, I have become wary of purchasing big ticket items, particularly for myself, in case it is feeding a small mania. My daughter recently became a teen, and even as a proud parent, I would say she has an eye and a feel for things. I bought her the camera for her birthday and she’s doing an interesting job with it.

What’s Yours?

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Whenever you submit a piece of writing, there’s often the requirement to ‘tell us a bit about yourself’.

Where does one start: reformed gambler, all-round lunatic and ragester; or mother of two, English tutor, likes tweed? Then there’s someone who was pulled over by the police at 4 a.m. on the M4 doing in excess of a ton, pulled out of a hedge by rozzers in N4 for brawling – let go with a warning, or the person who skid landed at the feet of two bobbies on the beat on the Isle of Dogs, when my bolting steed came down.

Which version of the self do people want?

This morning it’s: a 45 year old who likes passion fruit and hasn’t washed her hair since Saturday.

Bid Writing

I’m getting some practice in this weekend. I’ve written a few in the past and I can’t say I enjoy it especially. The first one I ever remember writing was pre-millenia to get funding for a van. We got the van. Maybe there wasn’t much competition.

Since then I’ve written three more, two successful and one not. I also drafted one over the Christmas holiday, and then decided not to submit it for reasons to do with capacity and financial projections.

I have a sneaking hunch that with a 75% strike rate so far, there’s only one way to go – down. On the other hand, maybe I should take some confidence from the positive stats and get on with this one.

What a boring post that was! Still, the van was maroon and pretty snazzy, and the driver, Phil, was made up as I recall. Whatever happens with this one, I got the van. That’s a life lesson I suppose, some of our experience is in the bank and no-one (not even subsequent failure) can touch those deposits.

treeline

Fear of Flying: Statistics, Probability and a Shameless Distortion of Schrödinger’s Cat

If you have a mental image of a contorted feline, all twisted limbs, shoved in a box and mighty pissed off about its current status – stop right there. That’s not what’s this is about. I will however will be playing fast and loose with various theories (probability, quantum but probably not statistics).

I’ve struggled with a fear of flying since 2004. Shortly after Amberleigh House won the Grand National for Ginger McCain, I boarded a flight from Kingston, Jamaica back to London. It may have been Heathrow, it could have been Gatwick – I can’t remember which. It may be that you think that detail doesn’t matter, but actually it does, because did you know Gatwick ONLY HAS ONE RUNWAY? The difficulty with this arrangement at Gatwick is that if something goes wrong on the sole landing strip – those aircraft waiting to land there are fucked. And, as the World’s Busiest single runway that’s a lot of planes stacking up in the air…

Anyway, I digress. Back in Jamaica the plane took off, night fell, turbulence started. The seat belt sign was on for most of that flight, so much so that going to use the toilet felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands – which in a sense it was. Unsecured people’s heads smashing through the ceiling of the cabin didn’t happen on that flight, but it can and does happen – notably recently on a plane from Singapore to London. Sadly, turbulence does cause injuries when you aren’t strapped to the seat and god alone knows how the pilot and first officer actually fly the plane at the same time…

Anyway, flying back from the Caribbean I was a six months pregnant woman so utilising some sort of secret industrial bladder strength wasn’t an option and I had to unbelt myself to literally brave the trip to the loo. I am not sure I have ever felt so vulnerable. Irresponsible too. I was travelling with my partner and two year old daughter. As I perched on the terrible toilet seat to pee, suspended 30,000 plus feet in the air over the Atlantic I was metaphorically shitting myself.

I learned a lot about humans that night (mostly that we are dully sheeplike in extremis) and since then I’ve found out a lot more about aviation generally in a bid to overcome my fear. One rule of those doing the actual flying is:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

This maxim explains the deafening silence from the flight deck and the interminable illumination of the seat belt sign nearly all the way from Jamaica. The Captain didn’t communicate anything to us the passengers, because he was too busy flying the damn plane through god knows what. I also now know that thunderstorms, despite the widely-touted claims about the robust nature of modern aircraft, are dangerous to planes and all who fly in them and, where possible, flight crew aim to give them a ten mile wide berth.

That night the plane plummeted up and down more than once. It was awful. And it seemed endless. I have since wondered if we were in a series of storms or if it was the plain old turbulence. What’s no comfort in these situations are statistics. Statistics allow us to rationalise the danger we feel that we might be in. One such statistic might be: of every 100 million people that fly every year, only 2 will die in an airplane accident. That statistic does nothing to reassure my overactive amygdala because it doesn’t make sense. After all, common sense not statistics dictate that if a jumbo jet goes down, more than 2 people out of around only 300 on board are going to die. I’m no math genius but numerically 300 is nowhere near 100 million. It’s simple common sense that tells us that in each individual disaster just about everyone is going to die. And over the Atlantic, in the middle of the night, you are all going to die. That’s a fact. Statistics just can’t help with any of that.

So when I board a plane then, I draw zero comfort from statistics. Instead I am focused on probability which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Statistics based on what has happened across the history of aviation tell me the plane will safely convey me from A to B and that my current chances of death on any flight are 1 in 50 million – good odds. Probability tells me that the proposition is more nuanced than that. Probability factors in all kinds of other things like: drunk, suicidal, over-tired, hungover, unhealthy or even one-armed pilots; maintenance crews missing important mechanical things that I don’t know the word for, the weather, ice, sand storms, volcanic eruptions, birdstrike, clear air turbulence that the airplane radar can’t detect, terrorists, plane flaws like those fires on the Dreamliners or metal fatigue in DC10s (I am a child of the 1960s – just) and hijackers. Probability will need to take into consideration the training the flight crew have and have not had, the amount of fuel that the plane has taken on, the nature of the route, and all the other planes that might be out there. It will also have to figure out how likely it is that a whole national Air Traffic Control system can go down, like the UK’s did towards the end of last year. I can’t do the math to say what probability theory tells me about my chances on any given flight are – the variables are difficult to quantify and, well just too variable.

Which brings me to the cat thing. As far as I am concerned, and now I have typed this up I have a horrible feeling that I have written this post before, when I board a plane it’s an either or situation. Like Schrödinger’s cat in the box, in the metal belly of the plane, I enter state of two possibilities – alive or dead – and no-one, including me, will know which possibility will have the upper hand until someone opens the box.

This post has obviously been occasioned by recent events over the Java Sea. It is also mindful that only yesterday a 7 year old girl knocked at the door of a house in Kentucky. She was bleeding and barefoot and the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed all the other four people on board, including her parents. Statistics and probability are no help to her – they only truly inform insurance companies and gamblers and aren’t so much applicable to the indivdual human condition.

Number crunching has it’s place, but we can learn a lot more from cats.

Why I like Christmas

Mainly because my daughter said I had to. She wrote on the calendar: no grinching allowed.

I do like spending time with my family.

I like having loved people enough to miss them when they can’t be here.

I like walking the dog.

I like having a break from work.

I like having time to catch up on work.

Whatever way you slice it and dice it: I am one mixed up kid and Christmas brings it all to a head like a pudding stuffed with sixpences, in a pressure cooker that’s long since boiled dry.

So stand back and cover your ears.

manhattan

That’s it for this year folks. Back in 2015.