It Ain't Tosh, it's Santosh

I know I’m bombarding you with posts at the moment but the brain is very fertile right now and who am I to resist? So as a companion piece or riposte, if you will, to the last post here is a tried-and-tested method of dealing with perfectionism, called Santosh.

It’s a Sanskrit word meaning ‘contentment’ (the very sound of it is comforting, and that’s no coincidence, as I’ll explain) but not the lying-on-the-sofa-watching-TV kind of contentment, if indeed that is contentment at all. No, it’s the contentment that consists in being satisfied with what you’ve achieved, no matter where you might end up. To paraphrase Kipling, it’s meeting with triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same (Kipling was born in India and was very influenced by ‘Eastern’ thought.) Anyway, leaving Kipling on one side for a moment, contentment or santosh is the practice of being content in the moment with what one has achieved. It does not imply self-satisfaction, nor does it prevent future progress; in fact I would suggest that without santosh there is no real progress.

Consider the case of someone (I know wherof I speak) who is overweight and desires to be slim. Their life may be dominated by self-disgust and thoughts of how they would like to look. But far from being a spur to achievement this is an obstacle because acceptance is lacking. Unless you can accept where you are – however briefly – you can’t move on: it’s like trying to find your way somewhere by putting the wrong postcode into your satnav.

Sanskrit is an ancient and astonishing language, and one in which sound and sense work closely together. This can be seen more clearly in the practice of mantra where a word or phrase has a meaning, a sound and an appearance, each of which can be used for meditation.

T-t-t-t-t-that’s all folks!

I miss seeing cartoons on telly.

Kirk out

Perfectionist? Is That the Word?

It’s a forlorn hope but I’ve been trying for years to get together a series of short and snappy jokes, along the lines of ‘Pedantic? I?’ So far I have:

Pedantic? I?

Pretentious? Moi?

Wordy? I myself personally?

Ungrammatical? Me?

Avoidant? Them?

Defensive? You?

and finally, Perfectionist? I? Is that right?

And now I’ve ground to a halt. I suspect it’s a very niche market. But let us reflect on the last of these traits, namely perfectionism. Handmaiden to competition and midwife of depression, perfectionism is the enemy of every achievement. It’s Scylla to the Charybdis of apathy, it paralyses the will and disables excitement. It subtracts joy and replaces it with endless, grinding labour.

As I’ve said before going away tricks one’s demons into leaving you alone for a while. They take a few days to wake up and realise that you’re gone, but as soon as they do they stand up, shade their eyes and peer at the horizon to discover you. ‘There she is, lads!’ they cry, and they set off to overtake you with bags packed full of misery. Sometimes if you leave before they get there you can trick them by coming home by another route (like Mary and Joseph avoiding Herod) but before too long they’ll spy you out and come home again. ‘There you are!’ they cry, sounding like a solicitous but abusive father. ‘Now don’t run off like that without telling us, you naughty woman.’

I managed to evade this noxious tribe in Scotland but now that I’ve been home a few days they’ve spied me out and the first to settle on my shoulders is that old albatross, perfectionism. We know each other of old, her and me (is that right? should it be ‘she and I’? Yes, it should.) OK – we know each other of old, she and I, and she settles quite comfortably into the niche she’s made for herself on my right shoulder where, like a pirate’s parrot she monotonously repeats her few phrases. ‘Is that right? You got that wrong!’ and of course, her all-time favourite, ‘That’s rubbish! Do it again!’ Oh, when will I be free of this demon?

Answers on a postcard please. And they’d better be good ones…

Kirk out

Stranglers on the Shore

There are a number of bands I didn’t immediately sign up to when I first heard them: for example, Dire Straits and The Pet Shop Boys, both of which I now appreciate far more than when they first came on the scene (the fact that Neil Tennant sounds just like Al Stewart didn’t hurt either). I even disliked The Stranglers at the beginning, if you can believe it: I was at the time very wedded to prog-rock and disliked a lot of punk and ‘new wave’ on sight (iyswim.) But it didn’t take me long to come round, and by the time they released the divine Golden Brown where the intro skips a beat like a lovestruck heart, I was sold.

As a child my musical world consisted of church music and oddbits of classical which I learned on the piano. There were also tedious instrumentals played for church socials including the number I later knew as Stranger on the Shore, the very sound of which transports me back to a draughty church hall, the churchwarden and his wife doing a stately foxtrot. Finding Top of the Pops was an epiphany, and instantly I developed a taste for folk-rock (James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young in his early incarnation) and prog-rock (Yes, Genesis, The Floyd). Like many people I’ve often tried to narrow down my eight choices for Desert Island Discs and found it impossible; I come up with different records every time. But today’s choices are:

Oh Jesus I Have Promised (the original music not the newfangled jolly tune which sadly I can’t find anywhere but I’m sure the BBC could) – this reminds me of the time the organist asked me my favourite hymn and played it on the organ.

Leonard Cohen: Suzanne. This reminds me of the first time I heard Cohen, in a classroom in 1972.

Argent: Hold Your Head Up

Gerry Rafferty: Baker St

Anderson and Vangelis: Somehow I’ll Find My Way Home (very apt, eh?)

Bob Marley: Jammin. I went to see Bob Marley in 1980; he was already ill and shortly to die of cancer, though we didn’t know it at the time.

Carole King: It’s Too Late

Leonard Cohen: If It Be Your Will

And the one I’d save from the waves? The last one, which I also would like played at my funeral. There’s also this version, which I love.

What would your Desert Island Discs be?

Kirk out

Am I Overly Self-Critical? Who Wants to Know?

Having been a victim – and perpetrator – of self-criticism all my life I often recognise it in others. As I’ve mentioned before, when I started writing (as an adult) on a German mountainside, Christmas 1980, I barely managed to get two sentences out before I slagged them off (‘too wordy and Dickensian.’) And that was a good day; on a bad day I’d hardly manage to write anything because the blank page would accuse me with its perfection – writing on it would be like peeing in fresh white snow. Self-belief is crucial for a writer; it is also horribly hard to attain, particularly in the face of constant rejection. But you pick yourself up, you blow a raspberry at the editors too foolish to recognise your genius, and you carry on.

What’s harder to excuse (though I understand the impulse) is folk who are afraid to put themselves out there but slag off those of us who do. I’ve had one or two of these in my life, and when I look at what they’ve produced there’s invariably nothing there – or very little. I’m guessing these people have a lot of warheads aimed at themselves but are armed with deflectors so that the flak gets splattered at those nearest to them – but however that goes, it’s harder to condone criticism from people who haven’t had the courage to put themselves out there.

But in the end the biggest enemy is oneself; and my own method of cheating the demon of self-flagellation is to outrun them. I simply start writing, put my fingers in my ears and say lalalalala and carry on writing so fast that they can’t keep up. Of course, once I start the editing process they’re there again – but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Happy Wednesday

Kirk out

Two Steps Forward, One Sideways, One Pirouette with Half-Pike and Turn, a Demi-Step Back and Then…

If I were any good at drawing I’d be able to do you the perfect diagram of what progress is like for me. It’s pretty much like the above: just when you think you’re getting somewhere and start to go ‘Aha! I see where this is leading!’ you find yourself not so much on a conveyor belt as a waltzer-cum-trapeze swing which lurches you in unpredictable directions, up and down and round and across and through… and my theory is that, in the immortal words of Chicken Run, this is about all of us. There are aspects of the self which lie hidden and forgotten until they surface, and in order for a person to progress, the whole self must move – which in my case involves the amalgam of complicated twists and turns detailed above. And so it is of late: for some reason over the last few days I’ve come on by leaps and bounds; I’m like the child at the head of the group who rushes on and keeps yelling to the others to catch up. But the others take their time. They need to explore a bit more, they have to be sure we’re going in the right direction. They consult maps and compasses and take a long, tedious time discussing it.

In the end I suspect that the self is not one person but legion, and that at any one time we happen to choose whichever part of us suits the situation we’re in and forget about the others for a while. But they will not be left behind; sooner or later they’ll make their presence known and we’ll have to let them catch up. It’s very trying, when you want to be cool and famous, to have to accommodate the legion of ruminating Quakers that live in your underclothes; you begin to feel like the young and sprightly leader of a coach party of shambling octogenarians. Yet there is nothing to be gained by chivvying them along; they will go at their own pace no matter what you say.

Actually I’ve no idea where I’m going with this post. But I’m sure one of the guys back there will have an idea. Hey, you guys! Where am I going with this? Anyone?

Aha! I sought inspiration from Proust and came across this, a questionnaire which he filled in twice in his life. I’ve missed out some of the questions but here are my answers. You might like to do it for yourself – it’s much better than those silly Facebook questionnaires.

My favourite virtue – compassion

My favourite qualities in a friend – sense of humour

My chief characteristic – complexity

My main fault – lack of physical courage

My favourite occupation – writing or socialising in the pub

My idea of happiness – it’s better not to have ideas but take happiness where you find it

My idea of misery – losing my family and friends

My favourite hero/ines in fiction – Pierre Bezuhov and Elizabeth Bennett

Try it for yourself. And don’t forget my 500th follower will get a FREE ebook of poetry or, if you prefer, a guest blog spot.

Kirk out

A Desk of One's Own

When Virginia Woolf wrote about women becoming authors, she prescribed an income of 50 guineas a year and a room of one’s own. I’m not sure what the modern-day equivalent is of 50 guineas, but I can tell you that a room of one’s own is a luxury I have rarely enjoyed.

The essential piece of equipment in a room of one’s own is of course a desk of one’s own; and this is something I have managed to acquire even if only in a corner of the bedroom. My first desk was a bureau in the hallway (I’ve blogged about this here) and my second, an ancient school desk with a sloping lid which I somehow acquired – maybe from a jumble sale? – and painted white. The lid sloped so steeply that I had to prop it up with fat books to make it level. On the top it had a niche for pens and a hole for an inkwell (at my first year at grammar school we had to use ink pens and I managed to get far more ink on myself than I ever did on the page; thankfully after this we were allowed biros.*) Then after I left home there were built-in desks in student rooms and finally, after years of desklessness, a magnificent one of my Dad’s which had sat in his study for years and was so old and creaky that it had to be held together with string. I seem to remember he bought it for 20 shillings from Timothy White’s. Then when that broke I was already in Madrid and had a tiny desk in the corner of my room and after that, once I was married with children, a table in the corner of the bedroom and then (joy!) for three years a proper desk in an actual study during which time I wrote a load of short stories. Around this period I also had a big dining table up at the chalet which, although a little creaky, was quite serviceable and looked out from a picture window onto the campsite and the trees beyond. But when we moved here I had to make do with a table in the library and a desk in a Friend’s house before I found a rickety old table on wheels and made some space for it in the bedroom.

I have written on trains, planes and buses. I have written in waiting-rooms and cafes, on beaches and in chalets in the woods. But the thing I long for most is a desk of one’s own – and a room of one’s own to put it in.

Kirk out

*I guess this could spawn another post; A Pen of One’s Own…

Cry God for Harry, England and… erm…

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that I’ve been spending a few days in the land of the free and the home of the Braveheart – no, not the US but Scotland. Dumfries is not so much bonnie scots pine as – ahem! – lowlandii, but it is nevertheless beautiful and parts of the journey are terrific. I didn’t see much of the hills from the A66 on the way there as I was too busy battling drizzle and endless truck-spray to wonder what lay beyond the clouds, but on the way back it was such a perfectly clear day that I drove slowly (or as slowly as one can without annoying everyone) and marvelled at the beauty of the Cumbrian hills with snow on the distant tops. I stopped frequently, intending to make the journey last most of the day, and as a result enjoyed it much more than if I’d hurried.

So what did I do while I was there? Well, I relaxed; I walked, I looked around, I went to pubs and cafes and shops and I spoke to people, though often not before they’d spoken to me first. Everyone is very friendly there; everyone smiles and says hello, everyone engages in conversation, so I felt very much at home. I stayed in a Travelodge which, although not recommended for its aesthetics, was nevertheless cheap, comfortable and clean and with a range of terrestrial TV channels which made me all the more thankful for Netflix and the iplayer.

So now I’m back, baby – and one of the news stories which broke during my absence was the (sort of) abdication of Harry and Megan. I was a bit gobsmacked by this as it seemed to come out of the blue; and I’m still not sure why they’ve done it, but the overwhelming narrative seems to be that he will not allow the press to do to his wife what they did to his mother. I read his speech today and found it very dignified and moving. There’s a high price to pay for being a royal and it’s a club they don’t ask to join, so on the whole I think what they’re doing is fair enough – though it distresses me that it’s even necessary.

So that’s us up to date. How have you been?

Kirk out