Rememberance

There are two stones sitting by the side of my bed on the pile of books that are inevitably there. The books represent my life: fiction, poetry, professional journals, travel guides and some articles gleaned from Sunday papers; some already read, some waiting to be read, some I am reluctant to assign to bookshelves just yet, before one more perusal.

The stones are very ordinary looking. One squarish and dark grey that looks like it might even have been part of a pavement sometime. The other more irregular and whitish. Nothing remarkable about either one. Both sit easily in the palm of my hand.

One comes from Auschwitz. The other from Birkenau. Both concentration camps infamous during and after the war.

I brought them back with me from my recent trip to Poland.

Perhaps I should first say that I am half Polish. My father escaped, barely, with his life in company with his widowed mother as a seven year old from Poland during the Second World War. They travelled by train to Italy, by boat to Lebanon and finally to Baghdad on a bus across the desert. His story is almost unbelievable, and horrifying, but he survived. So great was the trauma that he suffered during his escape that he did not remember he was Jewish until he was about forty, when the fact was revealed to him in a family argument with one of the very few surviving relatives from Poland who had settled in England.

But that story is for another day.

My father died about 10 years ago at the age of 72. He never returned to Poland after his flight, and so nobody in the family felt they could go either until after his death.

It has been my intention to go since his death, but I have somehow never got around to it.  The opportunity presented itself when I noticed that there was to be a ‘Scratch’ chorus performance in Krakow.

For those who don’t know about these things, a ‘Scratch’ choir is composed of individuals (in this particular case some 150 seasoned singers) who like to just come together for a couple of rehearsals before performing one of the big works.  In this case it was The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace.  A glorious work composed by Karl Jenkins after Sarajevo and perfomed for the first time the day before the twin towers went down in New York.

The choir I belong to had perfomed it the previous year.  I love it.

It tells the story of all wars.  The righteous, often religious, fueling of the inention; the build up and excitement about engagement that trained soldiers often talk about; the moment just before battle when all individuals, military and civilian, are caught in the grip of terror as they comtemplate their own mortality; the clash with the ‘enemy’; the awful silence which follows and the desolation and destruction that is inevitable.

Into the final silence come small beams of light and signs of hope which pierce the darkness afterwards.

The piece has all the recognisable bits of the Mass (Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Benedictus) interwoven with poems written by Kipling, Tennyson, and a poem by a Japanese poet describing the moment of destruction at Hiroshima.  There are parts of the Bible and the Mahabarat, and one movement is the sung Muslim call to prayer that customarily rings out from minarets across all Muslim countries five times a day.  All of these wrapped in music of different sorts.

In other words, the Piece incorporates all wars across time and place and condition.

The Work starts with a medieval french army marching song, and in some performances the start is the whole choir marching in place and in step, a small drum beating and a piccolo piping.

There are moments of clashing dissonance accompanied by brass and a lot of drums; there are moments of unaccompanied tightly harmonious singing.  At the beginning of the Benedictus, a single cello gloriously and poignantly sings, the sound spiralling up into the silence.

It was chosen to be sung in this year to coincide with the anniversary of the Great War in 1914.

There were too many signs.  This was too good a synchronous moment to ignore.  Poland.  War.  Singing in the company of others.  An opportunity to connect with my roots.  A visit to Auschwitz where most of the Polish side of the family had perished.  An open door beckoning me.

I felt bound to visit Auschwitz on two counts.  One to honour my murdered family and secondly to be a witness to the horror of what happened to millions of people during war when the aggressors lost all feeling for humanity.

It was a significant point in my life.  I knew it would challenge me.  I didn’t know how.

When I arrived in Krakow I spent the first couple of days looking and looking and seeking.  I realised quite quickly that I was trying to find what connected me to this place, these people, and ultimately to my father and his history.

The city is beautiful.  Medieval and set by the river.  A large squat castle which sits on a mound with turrets and castellations and impenetrable walls.  There are even dragon bones which hang in the entrance of the Cathedral attached to the castle, and said to belong to the dragon which formerly inhabited the mound on which the castle and cathedral now sit.  There is an ancient cobbled Jewish quarter with its narrow twisting streets and inviting eateries.  A massive elegant square, the largest in Europe, with its Basilica and icecream coloured buildings forming the square and reminiscent of Venice.  Fountains and statues and thousands of churches.

The city was not bombed like Warsaw during World War 2, as the Nazis made it their headquarters while occupying Poland.  Several days while we were there, the place was wreathed in atmospheric fog which simply added to the mysterious atmosphere.

Following my father’s escape from Poland, he had assumed a new identity right down to his soul.  He had locked his early childhood behind a solid door and thrown away the key.  he never retrieved that key.  Nor do I think he ever tried.  The father I knew appeared English through and through.  A consumate actor, a talented linguist, perfectly mannered, a charismatic people pleaser who hid his consuming, all embracing terror and rage so deep within himself that I don’t think even he knew it was there, and was as deeply shocked by its appearance, only twice in my life, as I was by its murderous vitriolic depth and breadth when released at me.

Poland.  Krakow.  It just felt foreign to me.  No feeling of familiarity.  The expected feeling of ‘coming home’, never materialised.  I don’t look Polish.  I don’t behave Polish.  My tastes are not Polish.  I could find no connection apart from just being a regular tourist.

In between intensive rehearsals in a cavernous Catholic church sited in the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow, I went on some tours.

The first day there I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

There were about a hundred of us, in three coaches, after an hour’s drive, we swung by a modern shopping mall in the middle of Oswiecim (the Polish name for the town) and turned into the car park.

The first sight were 20 or so tour buses neatly parked in a line, hundreds and hundreds of parked cars, and thousands of people milling around the brick buildings at the entrance.

We were instructed to get off the coaches and gather by the entrance, where we were herded, without instruction or information, through a narrow passageway.

That was my first moment of horror and connection.

I realised that this would have been a similar experience for the original occupants entering Auschwitz, suitcases in hand, children and family members pressed in close behind, unfamiliarity, no information about what was happening or why.

I felt consumed with rage that no one had thought that this might be a triggering experience for any of those visiting.

We were issued with our radio receivers so that we could hear the guide who would be taking us around and explaining things.We followed, passively and obediently, to our first stop.

Everywhere around us was neat and clean, swept, the lawns green and manicured and orderly.

It looked like a film set.  My brain could not compute that this was the real thing, this was where all those millions of people died horrible, undignified, terrifying deaths.

There were crowds under the gate made so famous in newsreels and films, recognisable to anyone, anywhere in the world.  Young people posing, thumbs up under the metal banner that declares ‘Arbeit mach Frei’.  Young couples entwined being photographed on iPhones and the like.

Wrong.  It all felt so wrong.

I could not tolerate walking round in an obedient and organised way.  I needed to make acquaintance with the place on my own terms,  Discover what there was to discover in my own way and in my own time.  Find my own connections.

I walked in the opposite direction to the group.

The most horrifying thing about the whole place from my point of view is the utter absence of emotion.  It is terrifyingly orderly and neat.  And that was the thought which came to me as I walked down the long avenues between identical brick buildings.

Auschwitz was simply there, then, as a practical solution to a practical problem.  There were people to be got rid of. The goal was efficiency.  Initially Polish political activists.  Later there were all those who the Nazis did not want included in their vision of a perfect Aryan world.  Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, and Jews.

The more peole who were shipped there, the less room there was.  They started shooting people to make more room.  It turned out to be too expensive. Bullets are expensive. Gassing and cremating became the most economical way to dispose of the millions who needed to be got rid of.

Then there was the problem of what to do with what remained.  The ash from the cremations, the clothes and shoes, the pots and pans and essentials that the victims had all carried hopefully in their luggage for starting a new life somewhere else.  All the things that were most precious and most personal.

The Nazis, with true efficiency made money where they could.  The ash was sold and used as fertiliser and to fill in ponds and ditches.  The hair shaved from the incomers heads, was baled up and sold on to be woven into cloth, a roll of which was displayed.  The example preserved in a display cabinet is tailor’s lining fabric for lining suits, confirmed by DNA as womens’ hair.  The gold from vicitims’ teeth was extracted and melted down into ingots for sale.

What remains at Auschwitz are those things which had no practical resale value.  Mountains and mountains of shoes, both adult and child, spectacles, surgical appliances, used pots and pans, shaving brushes and toothbrushes, suitcases marked with names and destinations.

These are displayed in mounds behind glass and are shocking for the numbers of each article and the thousands they represent.

In each of those tidy ordered red brick buildings are long corridors lined with photographs, or, to be more accurate, mug shots, like the ones you see in police files, of those who were incarcerated here.

Ridiculously, I scan each face, looking for someone or something I might recognise.  I am skilled at ‘reading’ the emotion on people’s faces.  I cannot read a single one of these faces.  I cannot detect fear or anger, just a sort of blankness.  There is no connection here.

When I can take no more in or on, I simply walk to a gate marked ‘Exit’, and leave.

Even this pulls at me.

Nobody who was confined here ever had that opportunity, although they would have given literally anything to be able to leave, or to have any loved member of their accompanying family leave.

The concert the next day found me raw with emotion.  Our venue was a large Catholic church, exhuberantly decorated with cherubs and saints in gold, flowers, candles and banners, expressing enormous and deep religious passion.  Grandeur.  Abundance.  Such a contrast to the other place.

I inhabited every note and word that I sang.  I sang with all my heart and all my passion.

We were not allowed to perform the Muslim ‘Call to Prayer’ which features in the piece because of the sensitivities felt in the Church.

Wrong.  All wrong.  It is exactly the inclusion of every kind of faith that is the point of the Work.

The words of the texts resonated with the telling and singing of them.  The music described the awful emotions that are not well expressed just with words.

It was not a technically perfect performance, but it was certainly heartfelt.

It is customary for Jews to leave a small pebble in rememberance on the gravevstones of those who are no longer with them, as a personal momento, out of respect and connection and love.

I did not feel inclined to so do in Auschwitz, although I did light a lantern in Birknau and left it on the railway track to add some light to this vast Hell.

It seemed more important to me to carry a piece of Auschwitz and Birkenau away with me into the outside world in rememberance of those who had been obliterated there with such casual indifference.

It is important that the world never forgets such inhuman behaviour from human beings.

When I returned to England a few days later I was dazed and disoriented.

I do not have an appropriate place to accommodate this experience in my soul, and maybe it is right that I never do so.

I will always carry with me now those inexpressable feelings and images which uncomfortably rub at me.

I am forever altered.

 

January 2015

 

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Salt, Canterbury: Small plates, big impact

Salt, Canterbury: Small plates, big impact.

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Therapy: The Road less Travelled

Therapy: The Road less Travelled.

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Therapy: The Road less Travelled

I begin with an incident that started me on an important journey.

It is a normal school day.  I am standing outside the back gate of my house.  Around me there is a stream of mothers and children flowing down to the primary school at the corner of our street.

It is early summer.  My six year old daughter is standing in front of me, trying to make herself as small as possible and pushing herself as close as she can to the wall.  She is dressed for school and holding her lunch box, and I am shouting at her, loudly and furiously.  Some distant part of my brain observes us;  I, incandescent and red faced with rage, and her, eyes bewildered looking up at me, small mouth turned down.

I remember thinking,

She’s scared…. and she’s scared of me…. I can’t remember how this argument started…. is this an argument?  Or am I just shouting… and if so… why?”

I simply stopped mid-shout.  My daughter and I just looked at each other, and both burst into tears.

Having delivered her to the school gate, I returned home.  I felt utterly bewildered and ashamed and terribly, terribly sad.  I couldn’t figure out what had just happened.  I had the awful idea that this was not the first time that I had done this.  I felt sick.  All that day I sat and thought and thought and thought.  I examined all my feelings, all my circumstances, all my ideas.  Nothing I could think of accounted for the enormous black feeling that had overwhelmed me during my shouting.  As I coolly surveyed all the information I had dredged up from the labyrinth of my brain there was one apparently unrelated fact that I kept coming back to.

“My daughter is six, and I was six when I went to boarding school.  There has to be a connection, even if I can’t see it yet.”

It took me a further month of hand hovering over the telephone to contact my doctor and make an appointment.  I knew he was undergoing training as a psychotherapist and was taking on some clients.  I was scared that I was going mad.  I was determined to never again punish my child for some unknown darkness of my own.

The first appointment I had with him was an hour long.  All I was able to say in reply to his question;

“How can I help?”

was

“My parents…..”

followed by an hour of uncontrollable crying.

I spent the first two months crying.  Slowly, I started to tell him my story.  I saw him every week, for an hour, for a whole year.  During this time I heard my adult voice releasing the words and feelings and thoughts of my childhood, buried for so long, and now triggered by the sight of my own precious daughter, who had a look of that other child, me.

How many times I have seen right in front of my eyes, a parent berating their child, who watches or protests, confused or angry, while the adult tussles with a ghost from their own past, reacting to some punitive voice that exists now only in their own mind.  Voices which punish, mock, shame or belittle them, as though the people themselves were still present.  Often, the adult is completely unaware of the process, certain that the problem is the child in front of them, and the child’s misbehaviour.

Over the last thirty years I have worked with other therapists, and trained and worked as a therapist myself.  I am much better these days at differentiating between a feeling which is my own pain from the past, and  someone else’s feeling in the present.

I have heard hundreds of other stories by now, and so know that a lot of people have secret fears and sorrows, and an inhibition about exposing these to another’s ears until crisis threatens.  You wouldn’t recognise these people on the street; they do not have a brand or a sign which separates them from ordinary folk.  They are ordinary folk of all ages and conditions in life.  They function in their own lives, have families and jobs, even if there are some interruptions to these while they are undergoing their crises. Their original survival strategies pushing them at best to eccentric and antisocial behaviour and at worst to divorce, drink, prison, murder.

Their main difficulty is that they have carried over some survival strategy from their childhood unknowingly into their adult life.  A strategy which worked successfully in their particular context, but which in the wider world is a bit ‘wonky’.  Children are very good at adapting to the circumstances in which they find themselves.  We are born into our families and must depend on the adults around us to take care of us until we are able to take care of ourselves.  This, adults do with varying degrees of competency, and as small children, we are not yet familiar with the possibilities or equipped with the necessary intellectual capacities to question the validity of some of the views held by our carers.  So we mould ourselves to those adults around us, to get the best advantage and to ensure our survival.  All this adaptation is normal and necessary for survival, and we have all done it, and done it successfully if we have grown to adulthood.

As we emerge into our own lives, we discover that other people sometimes do things differently to what we have come to expect as the one and only way to do things, in other words, the system we are familiar with, the way our own family does it.  At this point, we can be curious about the difference, or dismiss the unfamiliar way of doing things as the ‘wrong’ way, or come to the conclusion that there is something deeply ‘wrong’ with us, and something which we should hide.

Most of us choose to stay with what is familiar to us.  It is important to understand as well, that most of these processes and thoughts remain unconscious and mostly invisible to us.  Most nations have a reputation for certain characteristics.  We British are notorious in the rest of the world for our repressed emotions, congested bowels and bad cooking.  And the curious dichotomy that is the adoration and sentimental attachment to animals while being happy to send our small children away to boarding school.  We are also a nation known to produce extraordinary individuals with original ideas and thinking.  Using a psychotherapeutic slant on things, there are some obvious clues.

We are a small island nation who, constantly undergoing invasion and with a thirst to acquire more land and status, had to develop the ability to divorce ourselves from our feelings so that we could undergo long separations from everything known to us, to travel across the world.  In separating in this way from our feelings, our animal natures, our bodies, we stopped paying sufficient attention to what else was going on in our bodies, and started to invest more heavily in our intellects.  I have no statistics or concrete research to support this idea.  It is the sense I make of it myself.  And it does make sense to me.  I see similarities in other small island nations, like Japan.

For myself, the reaction I had from one close family member when I dared to reveal that I was engaging in psychotherapy was:

“a load of old rubbish…. very self indulgent… imagine paying someone so you can lie on a couch and talk about yourself for an hour…. shame though… I always thought of you as someone competent….”

All these years later, I am sad that this particular individual, who had had an appallingly sad and traumatic history themselves, was never able to bring themselves to address or have help with any of their own difficulties.

I have met some remarkable people on this journey and during my time working as a psychotherapist and counsellor and heard some remarkable stories.  What better reward could there be for work, than supporting others as they reclaim their lives and happiness, and in doing so, become more generous and compassionate members of their various communities?

Why do I believe that therapy is helpful and makes a significant difference?  It is the way we can salve those deep and unheard wounds that inevitably leak into our adult lives and appear as destructive behaviour, towards ourselves or others.  In unearthing them, having them witnessed by another, we can move onto the next step, which is to have a better understanding of what might have motivated such savagery from those who otherwise seem loving and caring.  Ultimately, this ripples out into the wider community.  If there are more people open to understanding what might be motivating others more deeply, there is surely likely to be less conflict overall.

Therapy is a curious dance of agile intellectual consideration, and engaging with a turbulent sea of feelings.  As a therapist, you have to be willing to explore all your own dark and unknown corners and know them well first, to avoid being distracted while accompanying someone else as they submerge in their own terrifying tempests.  The work is often to help them navigate to a place of understanding, not only of their own internal narrative but of alternative perspectives about other people too.  Tricky.

It is a popular idea in many religions and philosophies to ‘forgive’ the wrongs which have been done to us.  Unless our own original hurt has been attended to, I think it is difficult to move on to any understanding and subsequent generosity about why someone would hurt us in the first place.

A philosophy that I have come to believe in along the way is that under every savage action lies a good intention.  It is hard to reach or even imagine that intention without first having your own hurt attended to.  Our animal nature will consciously or unconsciously pay attention to what threatens us first, and will only move on to intellectual consideration once this has been taken care of.  An important step for me was to understand that much of what was happening to me was not personally focussed to me, but rather an internal response by the other person to archaic situations and people no longer present, and triggered by my behaviour.

In my opinion, those who skip personal archaeology and ‘forgive’ through sheer will or obedience to dogma, despite deep feelings of anger, sadness, outrage or despair are denying something important in themselves, sacrificing if you will.  I do  not subscribe to this martyr position.  I think that rather, having paid attention to one’s own unresolved feelings, compassion and  generosity are more likely for the ‘other’, and will be experienced as such.  There is more likelihood that both will be joined by mutual humanity rather than staying separately as  saintly martyrs and ignorant destroyers, who at best, are to be pitied.

I also believe that with more conscious understanding of why others do things differently from us, often bewilderingly different, we would be better equipped to mediate the passionately held positions which so often start wars, small and large.

I don’t want to give the impression that therapy is the ‘easy’ option.  It is certainly the most personally demanding and frightening thing I have ever done.  Typically, when I was still working as a therapist, my clients came to me in desperation.  Some event had usually triggered a response that they had noticed did not give them the outcome they expected or hoped for.  Or they were horrified by the intensity of feeling during the event, and could see it was out of proportion to what was happening.  Often this was all they knew.  How it connected with their intellectual understanding of what was ‘real’, or the idea that this might be a result of an old experience and an archaic understanding of what was ‘true’ about the world or themselves, seemed irrelevant.  And yet, there is always a suspicion, at that moment of awareness, that there is something wrongly wired in their personal views, or at least, that they are personally contributing to the crisis.

Incredibly, we can all do the same unhelpful thing time after time, for years, for decades, without ‘noticing’.  It is the moment of awareness, such as the one I had all those years ago, which alerts us to something not right.

The choices at that moment, are either to ignore that it is in our own hands to investigate and change our behaviour and our outcomes and simply go on blaming other people, the world, fate: or to take the plunge and seek help.

My life has been enormously enriched by daring to ask for help.  I believe that the quality of what I offer others in relationship is no longer so deeply tainted with paranoia, rage and fear.  I am more able to experience joy and appreciation.  I am who I am.  I cannot alter the facts of my experience.  I have changed how I make sense of my experiences.  In attending to that bewildered terror and sadness from many of my early experiences, I am better able to understand, more often, what might be motivating someone who is seemingly uncaring in their savage treatment of others and themselves.  I am better able to seek the solace and understanding I need in those moments of intense feeling, rather than explode and react against whatever or whomever is immediately in front of me.  I have learnt that what often motivates uncensored rage is an old terror, and bewildered protest.

As human beings, we have the gift of conscious thought.  I believe using our consciousness to better understand ourselves and our motivations gifts our families and communities with a more truly loving and generous contribution, and could maybe make the difference to how we all choose to live with ourselves and with others.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt: ” Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Maybe it’s enough to make the difference we all hope for.

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I already wear purple… so what shall I do when I grow old?

four generations

This photograph is one of four generations of women in my family.  My grandmother, born in 1903,  my mother, born in 1934, myself, born in 1955 and my two day old daughter, born in 1980.

We are all, for the most part, representative of our generations and the expectations and rules of those generations.

My grandmother was only 6 months old when her father died, but fortunately he had bought some parcels of land during his time as a house builder, and so the family were able to live by selling bits of land off through the years.   There was no National Health Service or Social Services at that time.  My grandmother was brought up by her mother, and her aunt, a single woman who had a career as a  headmistress and who lived next door with her own mother.   She was 11 years old when the First World War broke out.  Her brother was too young to fight, and she had had already lost her father.  Through coincidence, she was probably not unusual in having few men in her family, although others lost their menfolk in the fighting.

Unusually for the times, she went to London as a young woman and trained with medical students achieving a qualification as a physical education teacher, one of the first in the country.  She had two children, and was not able to have any more, despite wanting a larger family, as my grandfather, her husband, was rhesus negative.  These things were not well understood at the time.

My mother, born second, was a ‘blue’ baby, and had to have a transfusion at birth.  The doctor who delivered her was well up on the latest developments in childbirth, and his knowledge and quick thinking saved her life.  My grandmother was told that any subsequent babies would not be born alive.  She had no further children.  These days, the problem would have been known before she even started to have children.  A simple injection after the birth of her first child would have left her with the choice to have as many children as she wanted.

My mother, born between the wars, won a place at Cambridge to read English.  This was one of only 10 places available to women at the time.  She was forced to leave university when she became pregnant and got married.  She never had a job but was a ‘company’ wife, supporting my father in his work as they lived and travelled abroad with Shell.  Her main work was to manage the many servants we had, and organise social events on behalf of my father, and to do charity work in some of the far flung places that we lived.  Contact with home was conducted through letter writing, the few phone lines being very unreliable and extremely expensive.  She came back to England every few years between postings.

I was born in England, but before I was a year old, travelled abroad with my parents.  At 6 I was sent back to England to attend a private boarding school, flying out to join my parents for the holidays.  The only contact I had with my family were weekly letters, and an exeat weekend once a term, which I spent with my grandparents.

My daughter was born in a National Health hospital, whose service I did not pay for.  She attended many schools, including grammar schools, for which I did not have to pay.  I received an allowance to help me with her care as a child.  When she was older, she was given a grant to help with university costs.  She attended several universities as she changed her mind about what she wanted to study, and then was trained first as a teacher and later as a nurse when she changed her mind again.

Commonly for her generation, we, as her parents, bought her her first car, allowed her to come and live at home again when she was already 30 because she changed her mind again about what she wanted to do, and helped her with the deposit on her house.  Now married, she has her own house, a decent car, a widescreen TV and expectations of holidays in exotic locations.

My generation… that is.. the generation that was born in the 50’s and barely post war…. are a lucky generation in many ways.  Although we have engaged in conflicts in other parts of the world, our own country has not been directly affected by war as have the previous two generations.

We have so many more choices than our parents and grandparents had.

As a woman, I have been able to choose to have sex for pleasure without the fear of unwanted pregnancies.

I can choose and live with, a partner of my own sexual persuasion,  and be married and have children, or not,  without social constraint or exclusion.

I can educate myself to the level I choose, ability notwithstanding.

I can work at any kind of a job, and to the level of my ability.

I can receive medical care free of immediate cost.

I can be housed if I am not able to provide for myself.

I can vote and have a hand in determing who will be making the big decisions in the country where I live.

My grandmother had none of these choices.  My mother had some but certainly not all.

OK, ok….. I know that this is the theory and that in practice some of these things don’t quite match the theory… but nevertheless…. I don’t have the  spectre of workhouses…. or dying of measles because I can’t afford to pay a doctor… or starvation…. or having to stop work because I am now married….. or being socially excluded and unsupported because I am divorced……or having children at the whim of my body rather than through my own choice.

I live in a country where those that I have assigned authority to… the police and judiciary particularly… I believe are amongst the least corrupt in the world.

For our parents and grandparents…. many of those things were not so.

I am a woman approaching 60…. and for my parents generation that would already have been old…. and there would have been many social expectations of my behaviour.  My own grandmother at 60 was a little grey haired old lady who delivered the parish magazine…. worked in her garden… and was a helpful grandmother.

I still dye my hair a surprising red…. and take myself off on adventures….sometimes on my own….I’m still trying to work out who I will be when I grow up… because I believe that if I choose to learn something new… or work at something different… I still have that choice.

But it does cause me a problem….

With so much choice, and without many immediate role models… I don’t really know where to go from here.  This sounds very much like petulance, and I don’t mean it to.  I am very well aware that if I had been born in one of the urban sink estates and not into a reasonably affluent family, I would not have many of the choices that I do have, and I don’t in any way want to discount the difficulties of such a life.  But I can only speak from my own condition and with what I know from my own experience.  Whatever our background, some things are still true for all of us born at a certain time.

My generation are the last to be affected by the World Wars 1 and 2.  Our parents were all in the war one way or another and were themselves parented by those who got used to scarcity, uncertainty, and the absence and loss of friends and family members.  The generation who really did not know what the future would bring, or if there was to be any future at all.

Most of my family on my father’s side perished in Auschwitz, and my father barely escaped with his life from Poland at the age of 7, after the invasion of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War.  Amongst the possibilities for my english family was invasion and domination by another country.

As with all wars, there was no way to know how long it would last, how ferocious it would be, and how near the action might come to ‘home’.  Fear ruled, and children born to those who endured it were infected with the fear.

My generation were precious, not only as hope after the horror, but also carried the burden of making a new hopeful future that had been hard won.  We are still close enough to know what sacrifices and losses were endured, and how those impacted on our own families.  We have an innate drive to repay a debt and a feeling of responsibility to make best use of what has been offered to us.

My husband’s great uncle died in the First World War at the Somme, in his early twenties.  His mother, a widow, bravely travelled to France on her own, hearing that he was gravely wounded.  She arrived too late.  He had already died.  He had not in fact been fighting, but worked with the Ambulance Service at the front.

We have a large bronze medal, the size of a saucer, which shows a bowed Britannia, trident in hand, lion at her feet and carrying a laurel wreath which she holds above a plaque inscribed with his full name.  Around the edge the words…. He died for Honour and Freedom…. It was accompanied by a scroll which read.. “He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.  Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.”

My father in law, his nephew, was named after him at birth, his family obeying, in the most literal sense, the last instruction, a common practice at the time.  The debt at that time was to carry the name of the dead through life and to always live with the pain of the loss.   As was also common then, my father in law was always known by his second name, David.  His own name.

The recent veto of our own government to engage in conflict with another country, despite the horrendous behaviour of some of those governing it, speaks of a different view of how to honourably involve your country in matters which seem unjust, immoral and inhumane. We now invest more heavily in taking care of those who survive than in commemorating and forever actively living with the pain of the loss of those who have died.

With two global wars fought within only 40 years, those who survived World War 1 and 2, in whatever condition and of whatever age, now lived, utterly traumatised, in a world unrecognisable from that in the early years of the century.  I am certain that from this distance, none of us who did not actually live through those times can possibly know the horror and trauma of all that happened.  All certainty had gone, everything had changed, in every way, the old order was displaced, and almost everyone had been touched by the conflicts in the most immediate way.

The debt owed after the Second World War was more subtle.  Gone the habit of naming children after those who had died fighting, now, the more esoteric insistence to purposefully use all those gifts for which the war was fought:  freedom, opportunity, equality and abundance pushed at the lives of those who remained, and their children were pushed towards the new dawn of a new age.

At my age now I feel the time for reckoning has arrived.  As I approach retirement, my unease has increased.  Have I made the best use of what was offered to me?  What was I supposed to do?  Is what I have done enough?  How will I know if it is enough?  I think there are many of my generation who suffer from a cultural feeling of guilt.

This summer my daughter was married.  She is 33.  A common age in this generation for this important decision.  In my time this would have been considered old.  I was married at 23 and considered myself to be on the shelf.  When in hospital having my second child at 27 I was described on my hospital notes as an ‘elderly’ mother.  When a few years later, and after much heartache, I divorced, I suffered castigation and condemnation from older members of my family for taking this step, but nevertheless was able to emerge with my two children without having altered my possibilities for work, friendship or being part of my community.

I am surprised now that I thought that way then.  In current times, this seems ridiculous.  Many of the younger generation, including my own children, don’t even think about having babies until they are in their mid thirties… and it is not uncommon for women to give birth to a first child when past 40.  In my time there was great alarm and general tutting when such a thing happened.

Many choose to have children without marrying first, without any significant influence to opportunities of every sort.

Many choose not to have children at all.

The next generation are a confident generation.  Confident they have a right to make their own decisions:  confident that they have enough time to wait to make those decisions: confident enough to travel round the world while still young, and live wherever they choose, with whoever they choose,  in that world.  They do not seem to be infected with the same fear as us, but rather are willing to step into the unknown with a feeling that everything will work out fine and there will be enough time.  They feel absolutely that they are entitled to determine their own identity, and we encourage them in this.

A friend of mine recently remarked that what we have not taught our children is how to manage disappointment.  We have worked very hard to make sure that they have not only what they need, but also what they want and even to anticipate what they might want.  If I examine my motivation for everything that I have done for and with my children, I feel, in some ways, that I can never give them enough.  I have probably overindulged them.

I am a grandmother now.  My gorgeous grandaughter lives across the other side of the world in Australia and is 18 months old.  When my son and his wife visited this summer to attend the wedding, my grandaughter and I made a close bond, when they left I was heartbroken.  It is a typical of this modern age.  Of this new confident generation.  I know many of my age who have grown up children living in far away countires.  Families are often separated by distance now.  Families, and the roles of their members are acted out through personal choice more than ‘ought to’s’ or what we might have called duty in the past.  We do not insist, overtly or covertly, on compliance to our needs.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule in every generation.  It’s not like there haven’t been women in the past who did precisely what they felt moved to do, despite social convention, and who were gloriously successful in their choices.  But I am not exceptional.  I am ordinary.  I am a woman of my times.  I have friends who have the same dilemma.  We all suffer from a fidgetting sense of disquiet and question ourselves about the worth of what we have done or not done and some anxiety about what we are supposed to do next.

Some bury themselves in grandmotherly duties.  Some invest furiously in their work.  Some invest in altuistic pursuits.   Many are tyranised by large mortgages to pay off, or dependant children long past the time when those children would have been confidently seated in their own lives in the past.  Many give their children significant amounts from their own savings to ease the way to house purchase.  There are a significant number who are without partners, although with successful careers.  Certainly many are heavily involved in the care of their own parents.  A consequence of all of us living much longer than in previous generations.

I am fortunate to have a choice.  It seems ungrateful to complain.  I could have been one of those mentioned above, but I am lucky enough to have a husband who is happy for me to completely determine my own path and life, and who is willing to share what he works so hard for so that I can do this.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have worked hard too, and had multiple careers, and contributed significantly to the family.  Through circumstance and choice I no longer do regular paid ‘work’.

I have never really subscribed to the idea of work as being a paid job.  Some of the things I have done have not felt like hard work at all, but I have been handsomely remunerated.  Other responsibilites that I have taken on have felt very hard ‘work’ indeed, and I haven’t received a bean for my investment of time and effort.  For many years now, when asked what I do, I simply report those things I choose to spend time doing that requires my commitment.

I don’t want to waste the opportunity that I have now, and I have got to a place in my life where I am not willing to compromise the time I have left to me.

My body is telling me that it is ageing.  My joints are stiffer.  My stamina less.  My eyesight not as sharp, nor my memory as agile.  I do know a thing or two.  I have experience in many arenas.  The way that human beings age has not changed through time, and the changes are inevitable.

Part of my dilemma is whether to still follow the demand put on me to purposefully use my choices, as seen by a previous generation, or to simply do what I want, as I have encouraged my children to do.  The truth is, I do wear purple.  I do sit on the pavement if I feel like it.  I don’t feel there is anything I absolutely couldn’t do because most people don’t do it that way.  The consequences on the whole are not what they were.  Maybe the dilemma is that I do know that I have a choice about what I do, but I don’t have the same confidence as my children to simply do it.

There are many things I still want.

I come from a generation who still carry the fear of scarcity and loss but who have been offered, what was until our arrival, unknown freedoms and opportunities and abundance. In a way, I think we were rushed at a shining future to make up for an unthinkably horrific episode in our history.   This combination, I believe, has left us with a sort of guilt about whether we have sufficiently honoured the gift, knowing the sacrifices that were made to make them possible.  Maybe that is why we have so indulged our own children, wanting to pass on some of the largesse, and release them from the feeling of indebtedness.

Of course, releasing them from this has had a consequence: what has crept into the space is more a feeling of entitlement on their part, because that is what we have led them to believe.  We have taught them to expect to have what they want, and as a consequence, to become impatient when they cannot immediately have what they want.  I believe another consequence of our openhandedness with our own children is partly to blame for the problems of debt, antisocial behaviour and aggression, poor health through over indulgence and often, an apparent absence of personal responsibility.  It is an inevitable outcome when reciprocity and gratitude is not encouraged, and where there is more emphasis put on personal actualisation than social effect.

The benefits are also many.  At their best, the next generation are confidently themselves, personally committed rather than just obedient, hopeful and curious and excited about the unknown rather than fearful, generous in their inclusion and confident about being part of a global community, and where there is a belief about an endless and hopeful future.  It is a generation of no limits.  For good and bad.

Each generation has its curse and its good fortune, bequeathed by a former generation trying to right the wrongs of their own experiences, both in their families and in the world at large.

The wonderful poem, ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph, cites many of the insignificant and seemingly unimportant rules which many of our generation have obeyed in growing up.  In fact, the whole poem speaks of obedience to someone else’s set of rules.  Now made confident by our own children, we see that we have as many choices as they do, if we are willing to act more like them.

We live in the world that they are moulding and have already changed through their actions.  The world we were born into is already transformed out of all recognition.

We will not live to see the true legacy of our choices.  Our children will produce another generation, and grow older, and probably question the validity of what they have encouraged and taught their children to do, and bear the consequences of those choices as we are now doing.

I am now stepping into the part of my life, like every generation before me, where my own obedience or disobedience to family and social rules, my own passions and rebellions, have been part of influencing my own children and the paths they have taken.  I am fortunate that in my lifetime, the country where I live has not been engaged in war in a way that immediately affects our everyday life as in previous times.  The stability of my life has not been threatened as at least the two previous generations have been.  But the ghost of those times lingers still.  World War and a breakdown in social order is still a possibility with everything that comes with it.

I will grow old, inevitably.  And yet I still have the feeling of not knowing what I will do when I grow up, never mind when I grow old.  Maybe that is normal.  Maybe everyone feels like that and always has.  Maybe that thing that so many elderly people say when being close to the end of their life about still feeling twenty inside, is that same feeling that currently occupies me. A dissonance.

My physical being has matured through a predictable timeline, while my internal identity morphs and changes in reaction to experience, rather than time.

It is thought that babies first become aware of being seperate and different from their primary carer at about 8 months old.  It is part of being human to have consciousness of this.  After this first awareness, I believe that our individual identity (me) is co-created with many different forms of ‘other’ (you) and needs relationship, conversation, connectedness to mediate meaning: I don’t know who ‘me’ is until I have ‘you’ to interact with and I can see where we are the same and where we are different.

I am listening hard for the relationships and conversatons with other  generations, cultures, collectives, to hear what any of these ‘others’ is calling me to do, to be, to become.

Hello…… is anybody out there?

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September Walk at Oare

Its still
So still

No breath of wind
No sound at all

The marsh exhales
damp breath
on grasses
still glowing with
Summer green

Last night’s rain
lingers still
on occasional leaf

All around
swirling black confetti of swallows
Call softly
each to each

Gathering
Anticipating
the journey south
to African skies

Mist loiters
among
small boats
straight backed
on the estuary
sails politely furled

Today
The world has shrunk
to my loud breath
And
the thud
of boot on turf

Here be
No muscular dragonflies
buzzing brassily by
No splendid butterflies
Twirling
In among the
Blue and purple
Ballet dancer flowers

Now
Soft moths
flutter
above the
creeping carpets of moss
and
berries burn
bright as flames
amongst
the subsiding browns

Elska hunts rabbits hopefully
Pausing
inquisitive
in stands of
armoured
thistles

From the island
Liquid song
of
distant curlew
floats in the mist

Soon will come
the freezing fist of winter
and November storms

Dog and I
Turn for home
and soup and bread

Harvest gathered in

Another year
Passing slowly
into
Memory


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Festival Faces of 2013

Festival Faces of 2013

We have a Hop festival in Faversham the first weekend of September every year. The town is full to bursting with families and young people and old rockers, roast hogs and local cider and beer and pirate morris dancers and goth belly dancers and people on stilts and old faces and young faces and dogs and grandmothers and babies ….. and the wonderful thing is… despite a lot of people getting tanked up… the mood is always good natured and generous and friendly…. everyone is festooned with flowers and hops and the festivities go on all weekend….
I decided to take my camera and walk around the town and just take pictures of people as I felt I wanted to….. thank you to everyone who is featured above… you were all happy for me to take your photo without question and gave me a big smile into the bargain….

for those who were not there…..if you’ve never been… come next year… you will be welcome….

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