Shall I Part My Hair Behind? Do I Dare to Plant a Tree?

My blogging prompt for yesterday suggests writing a post about trees but instead I went shopping and got my hair done. Now if you’re new to this blog you might get the impression from reading this that I’m the literary equivalent of Rachel in Friends, not getting around to Jane Eyre but reading Vogue instead. The thing is, there are some days when despite your best intentions you can get all your books out and sit there staring at the computer and it Just Isn’t Happening. And on those days when a card arrives in the post with some birthday money inside there’s only one thing to do and, reader, I did it. I went and bought me a new outfit and got my hair done. I have to say I’m very pleased with the hair cut and clothes and intend to estrenar both tomorrow at the Labour Party ceilidh.

Estrenar is a very useful Spanish verb for which there is no equivalent in English. But there should be because we need it; it means ‘to use or try out something for the first time.’ I coined a similar verb as a child, to pervise, however this is very specific to a jar of Marmite (or something with a similarly smooth surface) and it means to broach that surface for the first time. So I think we should all adopt estrenar into our language – as indeed OH and I do.

Now I know that you’re all champing at the bit wanting selfies but in my experience a photo never does justice to the splendiferous reality so I’m going to paint you a word-picture. There’s a lot of rust around at the moment in clothes shops (maybe it’s all the rain) and I eventually persuaded myself to try on a pair of rust-coloured trousers. They were stylish and comfortable so I took a chance and bought them, along with a couple of mix-and-match tops. I’d also taken a chance on a new hairdresser’s in town (Loughborough seems to have more hairdressers than any town has a right to; I don’t know why and my stylist couldn’t shed any light either) as I’d chickened out of unisex one Daniel uses because it was full of teenage lads. Sad, I know… anyway she did a brilliant job and took about six inches and ten years off me.

Today it’s back to the laptop face though. And I haven’t said one word about trees… ah well, maybe tomorrow. Or not, as it’s my actual birthday then and I have lots of stuff planned.

Kirk out

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Writer’s Block, Anyone?

WordPress is determined to get me to use the new ‘editor’ which does things in blocks; why, I do not know, but like many such innovations they push you to accept new forms by making the old ones less and less attractive. But I resist change, not because I am a hidebound reactionary but because of the energy it takes to get to grips with something new. This is a constant feature of life and a continual problem for those of us over – ahem – fifty whose brains do not process new information as quickly as younger cortices can. But since wordpress has inexplicably downgraded the version I was using, it’s a choice between remembering something old and getting used to something new, so here I am trying to get used to my writing being ‘levelled up’, whatever that means.

I don’t consider myself particularly old, I’m pretty much on the ball and far from being ga-ga, but my life is a series of challenges which demand that on a regular basis I get used to something new. New things that have come at me in the past few years include: internet banking, online tax returns, contactless payments, wireless computer mice, ‘casting’ TV, mobile bus and train tickets, virtual kitchens (not for me but still) self-service checkouts (I’m still resisting these) and loads more I can’t bring to mind.

You might say, what’s the big deal? None of these things is particularly difficult, after all, and many of them make life a lot easier. It’s true that now I’m used to it, internet banking is very useful; it’s true that contactless payment is faster and easier and doing my tax return online is a doddle. But the point is I had to get used to all this stuff first. It’s as if you’re walking along a path quite happily but every few minutes someone tugs your elbow and says, ‘there’s a much better path up here.’ And then if you doggedly keep on using the old path they put obstacles in your way. And in the end someone comes down and says ‘this path is closing now. Please go to the new path.’ Just as HMRC are now digital by default, you have to apply for Universal Credit online and without internet shopping lots of avenues are closed to you. This stuff is largely driven by young men in Silicon Valley; it excludes the poor and the elderly and anyone else who can’t get their frontal lobes around it; and it’s very tiring. I want things to stay the same for a bit now, OK?

Then again perhaps the ultimate plan is to make all the free forms of WordPress intolerable so that we all upgrade to a paid plan. I wouldn’t put it past them…

Kirk out

Present (and Future?) Tense

Life as an artist is one headache after another.  Just when you think you’ve got things sorted, just when you have a plan, it all goes horribly wrong and like walking through treacle there comes a point where you Can’t Do It Any More.  I woke up this morning around five with a horrible headache and a Quasimodo shoulder up by my left ear (fortunately it was the left shoulder, not the right, ho ho: my left arm is my writing arm, so it’s logical.)  I took a couple of paracetamol and went back to sleep but the headache hovered over my pillow like a bad angel and clobbered me as soon as I woke.  It’s a mysterious thing how our muscles and joints express internal realities: I was talking the other day to someone who has a very tense working life and is now plagued by backache.  I rarely have backache: for me, tension is usually expressed in the neck and shoulders giving me headaches which I interpret as thoughts wanting to reach the brain but being prevented (if you think the brain is the only centre of awareness I would take issue with you: I think each part of the body is a centre of a particular kind of awareness.)  Only if I’m extra-specially tense do I get backaches and even more rarely, stomach aches.

How to engage with society is a big problem for most artists.  Some, like C P Snow, are lucky enough to fit in quite nicely and be able not only to hold down a job and write but also to write about that job (Snow was by turns a barrister, an academic and a civil servant who gave us the phrases ‘corridors of power’ and ‘the two cultures’.)  Then again, he never had to vacuum the sitting-room or run to Sainsbury’s for more marge.*  But for most of us fitting in – which means at the very least the financial imperative to work, and therefore to tick whatever educational and social boxes will persuade someone to hire you – is as problematic as it was for Larkin; ** and even when you are able to write full-time, there’s the problem of getting published.  And that’s a whole-nother way of fitting in (or not.)  When you write full-time the question is refined.  No longer do I ask myself which jobs I am suited for and would be able to do without going off my chump: now, the question is, how far do I write what publishers want (insofar as I know what that is) and how far do I write like myself (insofar as I can tell what that is)?  It’s a constant juggle: if you go too far in the direction of publishers you may be successful but at the cost of ignoring your own uniqueness; if you go too far the other way you risk never being published.  But maybe, just maybe – there’s a third option, which is that in truly being yourself you may produce something publishers didn’t know they wanted but actually really do.

I’ve blogged about C P Snow a few times.  Here’s one of the posts.

*They probably had butter anyway

** For me the problem was not only getting work but keeping it: I’ve had jobs which nearly sent me off my chump with boredom and other jobs where the work wasn’t so bad but I couldn’t fit in socially – and that seemed to be just as important.

Kirk out

Visualise Your Way to a Better Life

I’ve been doing a bit of the old self-help lately, dipping in to Paul McKenna’s books and using his hypnosis CD, and I’ve found the exercises very useful.  I’ve long been convinced by the power of visualisation to change your reality (I’ll give you some examples in a minute) but these exercises go further, using the techniques of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to help neutralise negative thoughts and emotions.  I’m not exactly clear what NLP is but according to this site it’s about finding a better way to communicate with your subconscious in order to get what you want.  Sounds good to me.

This entirely accords with the practice of yoga visualisation and affirmation.  In yoga you change your thoughts by cultivating more positive ones; not by suppressing or denying the negative but simply by focussing more and more on the positive.  As McKenna says, ‘You always get more of what you focus on.’  That is why people who focus on the negative all the time are never happy: even when good things happen they are still focussing on the down-side (much like the news media.)  In yoga we also use affirmations to cultivate positive thoughts and experiences.  It is very important when creating an affirmation, to avoid negative words.  So for example, instead of saying ‘I don’t smoke’ or even ‘I am a non-smoker’ you would substitute ‘I am free from smoking.’  Come to think of it, advertisers do the same thing: whoever came up with the suffix –free must be rolling in it.

So: one or two examples from my own life where visualisations have helped me.  Before Christmas I was thinking of getting OH a radio.  OH is notoriously difficult to buy presents for: unless you go for something related to drinking coffee (and those options were exhausted long ago) you’re pretty much stumped.  Last year I got what I thought was an interesting couple of books which have languished unread on the bedside table.  But this year a radio was the clear choice: the one in the kitchen, being smothered in cooking oil and penetrated by steam, had ceased to provide anything like a clear signal and besides, I had seen the perfect thing in an electronics shop up the road: a great radio with the added righteous glow of supporting a local shop.  Just one problem: the radio cost £80 and I only had £30.

Not to worry: McKenna to the rescue!  For I had acquired his book by this time and was already practising the NLP exercises, so I set about visualising the radio.  There were times when doubts would kick in and I would think about getting a cheaper one, but I had my heart set on that radio and so I oriented all my thoughts towards it too.  Christmas was getting closer, but I wouldn’t give up.  Then, with only three days to go, we got some Christmas money in lieu of presents.  Was it enough for the radio?  Hell, yes!  Did I bomb down to the shop and get it?  Hell yes.  And is it a success?  It really is.

Of course the other side to all this is appreciating what you have when you have it, but I’ve already blogged about that here.

I can’t tell you what my current visualisations are aimed at but it’s big.  Really big.  Because as Thoreau says, you should build your castles in the air where they belong; then you build the foundations under them.

Kirk out

The Joy of Tax

I’ve been putting it off quite long enough.  That reminder in my phone calendar to ‘do tax return’ has been lurking for weeks and has begun to assume a plaintive air: if I leave it any longer it will become positively admonitory – and take it from me, the last thing you want to see every morning is an Admonitory Reminder.  Having got the desktop computer up and running (like OH in the mornings – yes, still pounding the streets at 6 am) I’d run out of excuses.  Log on I must, and the sooner the better, just in case I run into any problems, since the prospect of phoning the helpline on 31st January does not appeal.

At this time of year I always think of Bernard Black making a jacket out of his receipts:

I know how he feels.

It’s not that in principle I object to paying tax.  As a fully-signed-up Labour Party member I am utterly seized of the need to pay what is due so that we can have proper public services.  No, it’s not that; in fact I’d be hard put to say what actually does bother me about this process – all I know is that a sense of dread and doom and an unwillingness to embark on it is matched by the knowledge that I must do it Or Else; and these two fight it out until, some time in late January, I actually do it.  Then once it’s done there’s a feeling of euphoria which lasts several days – but somehow I always forget this when January comes a-knocking again.

Anyway, with that box ticked I can get on with the rest of my year, warmed by a righteous glow and without the need to talk to any Jehovah’s Witnesses…

Kirk out

Back on the Box

Sadly I’ve given up on the other laptop now.  We considered taking it for repair again but it seemed like throwing good money after bad, so out came the desktop which has been languishing in a corner since we moved here, for lack of a desk to put it on top of.  Well, I now have a desk of sorts and having run out of other options we decided to give it a try.  Sometimes – to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes – when you’ve run out of possibilities whatever remains, however impossible, must be the way to go.

It was like doing a Rubik’s cube.  A space just wide enough between the bed and the ottoman now houses the CPU while the monitor and peripherals perch on what I am pleased to call my desk.  Everything worked.  Joy.  A dongle was swiftly purchased and inserted into the proper orifice and here I am blogging on the desktop.  Actually it was a pleasure to use it: I felt bad about seeing it languish for so long.

I spent the rest of the day trying not to think about Brexit.  I don’t know whether to feel glad or not about the government’s defeat; on the one hand anything that might get rid of them is to be welcomed but on the other, the appalling mess that was unleashed in 2016 is no nearer being resolved.  May seems to soldier on regardless in a sort of deep denial, passing landmark after landmark which in normal circumstances would see Prime Ministers resign, determined just to plough on like someone driving at sixty miles an hour along a road which will shortly be plunging into a ravine.  There are service stations and rest rooms, there are escape roads and ambulance crews but she ignores them all.  I simply cannot understand what goes on in her mind.

Well, at least I can attempt to discover what goes on in my mind…

Kirk out

Happy With Your Life?

Today is the first Sunday in Advent and so should be a time for looking forward.  Yet we often find ourselves looking back on the year and asking the inevitable question, ‘What have I achieved?’

Well, the answer to that depends on how you define achievement.  The usual way is to consider worldly success in terms of work, money, possessions, and so on, followed by personal goals (travel, weight loss, exercise, etc).  You draw up a sort of achievement balance-sheet: on the plus side you put goals attained and on the minus, and much more painful, side you put negatives such as goals you didn’t achieve.  There might be even worse things to add such as giving up smoking and then taking it up again, losing your job or putting on weight you’d previously lost.

All of this, I submit, has a very negative effect on us.  Even if the goals have all been achieved and the boxes ticked, the sense of satisfaction is likely to be short-lived; then when similar goals are set in the New Year we may feel we should move the goal posts.  Of course this in itself can be very positive: in the last couple of years I increased my yoga practice from 10 – 15 minutes to 20-30 minutes; I now have a vague aim of doing one or two longer sessions.  But this goal comes from an inner prompting, a desire to do more – rather than an external taskmaster wagging their finger and saying ’30 minutes is not enough!’

There’s a truth here which I believe to be universal; and it’s this:

Contentment with where you are is the key to achieving more.

By ‘contentment’ I don’t mean a sort of self-satisfied sloth:

Image result for a self-satisfied sloth

(image removed on request)

but a genuine ability to be OK with where you are, even at the same time as recognising that’s not where you want to stay.  It’s one of life’s paradoxes that lasting change comes from a standpoint of acceptance rather than discontent.  It’s also self-evident that a lack of contentment means that no goal is actually worth achieving because you won’t be contented there.

The hills may look blue from a distance but once you get there you see more and bluer hills in the distance.  When I get there I’ll be happy, you think – but if you’re not content now, why would you be then?  There are always more and bluer hills to climb.  So you’ve run a marathon?  That warm glow of satisfaction worn off already?  Do a triathlon.  Swim the channel, climb Everest, row around the coast.  Then you’ll be happy.

Consider, if you will, the super-rich.  I don’t know any of these people personally but to judge by their behaviour they, too, are never satisfied with what they have – otherwise why would they always want more?  And they always do want more: one yacht is never enough.  There’s always someone richer than they are.

But as the Baghavad Gita says (I think it’s the Gita) ‘What is found here will be found there.’  Contentment is a quality that comes from within, not from external achievements.  It can be developed but it takes dedication and practice – the willingness to say to yourself, no matter where you are and what’s happening, ‘I am content to be here right now.’  The paradox is that this can spur you on to greater achievements – with which you will be content – until it’s time to move on.

Of course it’s a hell of a lot easier to do this when you’re somewhere nice than if you’re on the streets or in a refugee camp or a hostage in solitary confinement – and far be it from me to lecture people in those situations about how they should behave.  As for me, I first started the practice of santosh (as it’s called in Sanskrit – beautiful word) when I lived in Madrid: walking round the streets and being aware that I wouldn’t be there for ever, I made a conscious decision to appreciate everything I saw and felt and experienced.  But contentment can have a transformative effect on negative experiences too; and be the springboard that gets you out of them.

So I guess that teaches me to be content with only being slightly published.  Hmm – it’s harder than it looks, this santosh…

Kirk out