Nobody’s watching

Camera
Nobody’s watching; nobody cares

I love the fact that each and every human being is made up of a glorious mix of traits – no-one is wholly one thing or another, however much we might like to label ourselves. We are not wholly confident, nor utterly unconfident; no-one is flawlessly beautiful and neither is anyone so ugly that they cannot be allowed out in public. The most that we can say about anyone is that they exhibit more or less of a particular trait than a handy comparable person. A person may be more shy than a sibling, or prettier than a friend; less successful than a boss but more successful than a neighbour.

I would generally consider myself to be less self-confident, for example, than I would wish to be, although this is improving with age, and there are scenarios in which I am as self-confident as anyone. I think of myself as socially rather awkward and I used to rue the fact that I didn’t have a huge circle of friends. Again, as I’ve got older that has mattered less and less and now I look back and wonder whether I didn’t have that type of circle because I neither needed nor particularly wanted it. Perhaps I am not shy so much as insular.

When I read advice about self-confidence (which I do, because I love a bit of self-help advice which I can then totally ignore), one thing that leaps out at me is the concept of self-consciousness. In particular, the idea that we often fall into the trap of believing ourselves to be the centre of attention and all our faults glaringly obvious, when most of the time no-one is watching us and no-one cares what we are doing.

I can only assume that the people giving this advice are in that rare minority who take no pleasure in watching other people. Me? I am always watching. I love seeing what everyone else is wearing and carrying and doing and thinking. Quite often, I am studying with a critical eye, although I try to keep my observations largely to myself. It would, therefore, be disingenuous to assume that people are not, in their turn, studying me and making sometimes harsh observations. I don’t think any of us have it in our power to prevent this and I don’t think we should wish to because it is through observing others that we come to an understanding about what people are and how we can all coexist in this world. Pretty much all creativity includes some form of watching other people and if no-one was watching, then there would be no stories, no films, no TV, no music. This mutual studying of each other helps us to understand both our similarities and our differences.

We all have times when we think we have done something stupid and we want, more than anything, to curl up in a ball and avoid human contact so we don’t have to be reminded of our mistakes. Perhaps next time we feel like that, it might be useful to remember that someone might have been watching, someone might have seen it, someone might think less of us, but it doesn’t matter. There will have been times when they have felt exactly that way too. They might be so busy watching us and making judgements that they walk slap bang into a foolish situation of their own.

What I have learned from observing people who seem more self-confident than me is that sometimes they are just better at masking their insecurities. They are, in their way, actors who step into the part of “life and soul of the party” when they encounter others. It doesn’t mean they are better than, or any worse than, the next person, than you, than me. If we choose to we can all emulate them: put on a mask and play to the gallery before we retire to the peace and comfort of our own skins.

 

 

 

Looking out

Dark berries
Keeping my eyes open

In my youth I was rubbish at taking photos and I do like the fact that the digital age has revolutionised photography. I think the most important thing I’ve learned about taking photos is the importance of keeping my eyes open, seeing the details. Although we can capture a wide vista in a photo, often it will include elements that would preferably not be there; the lens tends to record a lot of things that our eyes simply edit out. I like a nice close-up shot like the berries in this photo, but this is not a good photo because for some reason the soft-focus areas have pixellated. I could crop them out, to be sure, but then I would end up with an oddly-shaped photo. Either way, it would not be perfect, and that’s the point – does it need to be?

I think keeping your eyes open, getting a clear view of both the vistas and the details, is an important life skill. I think the more we get used to how things look in real life, the better we will become at judging our own efforts fairly.  Let’s not edit out the less than perfect things in our photos and let’s not edit out the less than perfect things in our lives. Let’s live it as it comes.

Here are two examples of today’s efforts:

Chutney labels
Those labels
Treacle tarts
These tarts

The chutney labels aren’t perfectly applied; the filling escaped from the tarts and the pastry crumbled on a couple of them. Instagram would not approve. My tummy, on the other hand, has absolutely no issues with either of these efforts, and my tummy is far more important than Instagram. It has also been around longer, so I guess it knows more about real life than Instagram does.

Considering those tarts I have to conclude that they will look a whole lot better when I cover them with custard at luncthime. Maybe many things that don’t look so good on their own would look better with custard? It’s just a thought.

Inevitable

2005 Moving in
2005 Moving in

If you watch the modern iteration of Dr Who you may be familiar with the departure of David Tennant’s Doctor and his final, despairing phrase: “I don’t want to go.” Knowing that in the next two months I have to leave the flat I’ve been lucky enough to live in for the past fourteen years, that same feeling is constantly with me.

I have been looking back at the photos I took before and just after I moved into the flat, and so much has changed, although core elements have stayed the same. There was always a bag of knitting beside my favourite seat, and books, and cups of tea. Even in the very first photos I took, there is a teacup on the window-sill.

Looking at the photos, though, has led me to ask one vital question – what did I do with that green needlework cushion? It’s there, sitting on the green chair in this photo in February 2005, but by the time I took my Christmas photos it had disappeared from view. I simply don’t remember what I did with it. I remember making it and I really liked it, so I’m surprised that all memory of it has been so successfully erased.

The green chair is one of my favourite possessions, and still has a proud place in my living room. I inherited it from my parents who inherited it from my grandparents. I would dearly love to have it re-covered in a Laura Ashley fabric, but that plan is definitely on my “if I won the Lottery” list.

When I moved into this flat, I was downsizing from the house I had lived in with my parents, and I had no idea what furniture I would use in my new, solo, flat-dwelling life. I have to keep reminding myself as I think of the new move to take place, that I am in a much better position now. I know that the items I have are, on the whole, the items I will be moving with. This time I have no illusions of shaping myself to suit the space, I know that whatever I move into will in time become my home, filled with my things, and reflecting my personality. That is my definition of a home.

Eastern windows

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And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

Arthur Hugh Clough
Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth

Hereabouts, this Bank Holiday weekend has seen the return of the crazy temperatures we had early in the summer. We should be getting back to normal by next weekend, thankfully.

I have been thinking about the ebb and flow of long-term goals and whether it is possible to minimise the impact that a short-term imperative will have upon them. In the short term I know that I need to settle into my new job and reset my routines and that doesn’t leave me a huge amount of time for my long-term goals of creative writing and knitting. In an ideal world we would be able to split our attention perfectly and achieve all of our desires; in this slightly less perfect version, it is important to deal with the most important things first and perhaps accept that sometimes the things we value most highly may not be the most important things.

For me, the past year has been dominated by an urge to come to a conclusion about what shape I want my life to be. Yet, as the sun is pouring down its last hurrah on us before retiring into its mellow autumn days, I am facing the fact that I will probably never really know what shape I want my life to be. In fact, I need it to be a mutable thing, with no fixed lines; something that can change with the seasons and adapt to changes in the world around me. In this, I am fighting a battle with myself because my natural inclination is to be totally inflexible about absolutely everything – the more rules the better. I put that down to my Aquarian roots – we are always marked as one of the “fixed” signs of the zodiac and, whilst I respect everyone’s right to their own opinion about such things as horoscopes, I do display the vast majority of typical Aquarian traits.

As I said in my previous blog post, things do not disappear entirely when you take your eye off them. I am allowing my writing and, to a large extent, my knitting, to take a rear seat for a few weeks, but that doesn’t negate the hard work I’ve put into them, nor reduce my committment to them. The fact is that I value them so highly that I feel they deserve my attention and it is best not to slog at them in a half-hearted manner. It is important, though, to work hard on the short-term imperatives so that I can quickly get back to working on my long-term goals and make sure that I don’t simply fall into an inescapable cycle of fire-fighting.

All that being said, I do have a little knitting progress to show on Wednesday, and whilst I was walking home with my groceries this morning I thought of a little piece that I need to write down to include in my novel, so whilst I am looking out of Arthur Clough’s eastern window, the land to the west is brightening all the time.

What I know

September 2018
September 2018

“If I knew then what I know now” is a deceptive little phrase and one that has been burrowing around in my mind this week. It is so tempting to interpret those few words entirely negatively; to think of them as a regret; to assume that we would have done things differently if we had been blessed with the gift of foresight. It is as if the words are written on the outside of the door to our dreams, which now stands locked and barred against us.

I think we need to find a different way of looking at it; forget about timing and say “I now know what I need to know”, then go forward from that position of strength. Lessons hard learned are not be frowned upon, and experience gained should not be disregarded. Our dreams may change, of course, in the light of knowledge gained, but they do not have to; and if there is a door to our dreams, it is never shut so solidly that it cannot be re-opened.

In The Lord of The Rings, JRR Tolkein wrote about this concept in terms of paths that run within our lives:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,

And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

The dreams, the paths, are not gone; they are just set aside momentarily until we are ready to resume our course, knowing what we now know.

Routines

Peace
Boer War Memorial, Norwich

Some people thrive on routines whilst other people loathe them, but we all rely on them to some extent. However much you might seek to escape, to live a life of sponteneity, you can’t deny the subtle tug of the turning seasons, the rising and setting sun, the moon as it waxes and wanes. If you live upon the planet Earth, you are programmed to obey its routines.

My photograph marks that autumn is approaching and, for me, a change of circumstances and unavoidable change of routine. I will be commuting past this statue twice a day in increasingly murky weather as the year recedes from my grasp. I won’t deny that circumstances need to change and that I welcome the murky weather and quite look forward to the brand new year that will chase the old one away. I could live without the change of routine, though; I hate to change my routines. There is always a period of discomfort when I’ve lost the old routine, but not quite set up the new one.

Knowing my routines are destined to change sends me into a flurry of preparation. I try to imagine what my new circumstances will require, how I will be able to fit the important things into new timescales, what, indeed, is important and what I can simply kiss goodbye to. Yet, if experience has taught me anything (debatable), it has taught me that there is a limit to how far you can go in planning a new routine; the specifics will only gradually fall into place during the early weeks after the change happens. No matter how much I want to have everything thrashed out today, it is not yet the right time to determine what I am going to need with me on a daily basis, what I am going to have time to do on my new commute, where and when I am going to shop. I will need to live the new life for a bit before I can fathom out what does and doesn’t work and adapt myself accordingly; only then will I be in a position to settle in to my new routines.

This leads me to conclude that routines are not things which we can consciously set up, maintain, dispose of, or lose – they are not really subject to our control. Routines are adaptable, although they give the appearance of being solid. They are a landscape and our life runs through them like a river, carving patiently through the bedrock, altering it a millimetre at a time. Sometimes life, like a river, is in flood; other times it idles peacefully along, occasionally it forms an oxbow lake where we sit becalmed for a while.

Changing my routines does not come easily to me and in the past I have been guilty of fighting change. Perhaps I can ease the process by allowing my routines to evolve to suit me as I move forward, rather than seeking to set the routines in stone first then fret when they don’t really work.

It isn’t easy to get a handle on all this stuff that existence brings with it. I can’t help but feel it would have been useful if someone had mentioned to me fifty years ago that life isn’t anywhere near as clearly constructed as you’d think and that you’ll never really get the hang of it. So, if you’re young, and you’re reading this, please feel free to take that as my lesson to you.

Tune in on Wednesday for some knitting content, because I have a finished object to share.

An ode to August

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Ah, August!

July is a funny month in my experience. Although it is tempting to think of August as the height of summer where I live, July is often the month with the highest temperatures. July is hot, sweaty, torpid, and I am unenthusiastic, becalmed. Contrast that with August, when the nights begin to draw in; there is a tiny promise, in the early morning, of autumn waiting just around the corner; in the local streets the gardens are ripe with plums and apples. August brings a breeze to the east of England, to blow away spiritual cobwebs and physical lethargy. At its best, it combines the good things about summer – long days, sunshine, that school’s out feeling – with rather more pleasant temperatures and an anticipation of things to come, new adventures, new terms, perhaps even new people.

So here is a question to ponder – when does the year start?

There are a multitude of possible answers. The calendar year starts on January 1st, of course. Then there is the tax year which, in the UK, starts on April 6th, and in many companies this is the year we have in mind whilst we’re at work. For children, parents and anyone who works in the education sector, the school year is the predominant measure of time which puts September as the year start, in the UK at least. These are three very common examples, I am sure there are many more.

However, the thing I have been thinking about is the personal year: the year as you feel it to be, regardless of what anyone says, and tradition or circumstances dictate. This has been high in my consciousness because a lot of planning systems emphasise a half-year check-in on goals and, presuming you set your goals at the beginning of January, you will be carrying out your half-year check in July. There has been a fair amount written and videos produced throughout the past month on this theme, and yet July feels to me less like a new beginning and more like a slow descent to the finish. In fact, it was almost the end of July when it occurred to me that August is the time when I feel things change and I start to look forward.

This actually makes sense because the July feeling is exactly the way I always feel during the six weeks between Christmas and my birthday – the pause, the wait for a new beginning, as opposed to the time when the new year starts and I am full of enthusiasm for goals I’ve set myself. Perhaps my personal year starts in February, meaning my personal seasons run:
February/March/April
May/June/July
August/September/October
November/December/January.

With this in mind, I am working on my half-year review and planning; trying to work out how to move forward with my goals between now and February; taking advantage of that fresh-start feeling in my heart.

How about you? Do you feel that your personal year runs on a different schedule, or are the standard years – either calendar or academic – the ones that feel right to you? I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment.


With reference to this week’s quote in my diary – I can thoroughly recommend this YouTube video of Alan Rickman’s wonderful performance as Jacques Roux in “Revolutionary Witness”. An oldie but goodie.

 

Fail is a four-letter word

A revolutionary failure
The Liberator from Blakes 7 – a series where the good guys failed to win

In the world of Blakes 7 fandom, there are many hotly debated issues, but the end of the series is particularly divisive. There are many fans who feel let down by the fact that everyone (debatably) died and that the evil Federation ‘won’. Personally, I have always been happy, although obviously also devastated, that it ended in such a strong way; I would have hated for the series to drag on too long and then just fizzle out. I have posed the question before – if it had had a happier ending, would I still be obsessed with it forty years later?

However, this isn’t an essay about Blakes 7; I’ve just used that for illustrative purposes. My real aim is to talk about the nature of failure and to determine whether I should feel more disturbed by my failures (they are many). It seems, even before the rise of social media, that we have been increasingly encouraged to sanitise our failings and the word “fail” itself has been demonised. The mantra nowadays seems to be “praise the successes, gloss over the failings”. I, for one, am beginning to wonder if this is really wise.

This has been on my mind over the weekend because I have been watching YouTube videos by someone who writes, self-publishes, and also has a business advising other writers about planning their work/lives. The channel is Heart Breathings, if you would like to check her out; I’d say she does about 50% good commonsense and advice and 50% hustle, and there are a lot of YouTube channels out there with much more hustle. I will come clean and admit I watch a lot of YouTube videos in search of inspiration about tackling my own lackadaisical approach to planning. You have my permission to question whether watching YouTube videos is a sensible way of dealing with a lack of enthusiasm and determination or whether it is yet more procrastination.

I watched one particular video in which this writer and her buddy had a writing retreat and I found myself wondering about the fact that she didn’t meet the targets she set herself. Now, she is heavily pregnant which would definitely affect her ability to work, and the word count goals she had set at the beginning of the break seemed incredibly high to me. Although the first day was mainly travel, she was already far behind her target at the end of it and I wondered why she didn’t revise her target based on that fact. It is fine and dandy to forgive yourself for not achieving your targets, but you need to be realistic when you decide whether you can catch up over a set amount of time, and if you can’t, you will need to lower your expectations.

One of the most interesting things my weekend’s viewing has me thinking is that I should care more when I fail. If failure doesn’t upset me, then what I was trying to do wasn’t important in the first place. I’ll be honest: I’m getting on, I don’t have time to be doing things that I don’t care about. Failure is a feeling, as are success, love, and hunger. Why would I waste my remaining days ignoring such feelings or, worse, not feeling them at all? To a certain extent, we judge which things we care deeply about not only by how happy we are when we succeed, but also by how we feel when we fail at them. When something is important to us, the stakes are automatically higher. We can shrug off a disparaging comment from a stranger far more easily than the same comment from someone we know and admire.

From the partial reading I have done of The Bullet Journal Method (see my previous One Book July musings), one strong idea I have taken away is that if you continually fail to do a particular thing on your list, you would be wise to examine whether it is actually important to you. I am guilty of carrying certain tasks forward from day to day, often tiny tasks that take no time at all to do, because I don’t feel any sense of guilt that I didn’t do them. I need to look at each of these things and ask if I actually care about it. If I do, then I should feel guilty that I am pushing it endlessly into the future; if I do not then I shouldn’t be trying to do it at all.

It reads as if I just spent the whole weekend watching videos, but that is not the case. I spent a couple of hours on Saturday sketching out a version of a planning page that would help me to set goals for the next quarter of the year and break them down into a list of tasks for each month and week. Doing this, I discovered that I don’t actually have a problem with the goal-setting side, and I can see the actions I need to achieve the goal, but I struggle with the concept of assigning particular things to set time periods. Perhaps it is because the projects I am currently working on really consist of doing the same thing repeatedly. Take, for example, searching for a job, which involves checking out particular sites for vacancies each day. I can’t control how many suitable jobs will be advertised in a week, so I can’t plan ahead to put in, say, two job applications every week. All I can do is repeat the process and ensure that when I see a vacancy that I think will suit me I send an application in a timely manner. That doesn’t count as ‘planning’;  it is, by its very nature, reactive. There is a more proactive method which is to send of a set number of ‘cold-call’ letters every week on the off-chance that someone might be thinking about hiring, but that doesn’t appear to be how the job market works nowadays. There is a similar conundrum with writing my novel: I am trying to write a minimum of 500 words a day and the aim of finishing first draft will be achieved when I’ve finished telling the story. In this instance, the proactive course would be to determine at the outset the number of words I want the novel to come in at and set goals of when I want to be at the 25,000 or 50,000 words mark. That is certainly something I want to consider. Funnily enough, knitting is the one thing where I find it very easy to set goals and break down a project into components – when I want to have the back or the sleeves finished by. In fact, if I could approach different types of projects with the same clarity that knitting has, life might be a little easier.

So, here we are, heading into a new week and it might seem negative to start off with the objective of feeling more disappointed and unhappy if I don’t do things well, but being disappointed by my failures is a key component in moving forward. After all, fail is a four-letter word, but if I own my failures and use them as rocks to form the foundation of the life I’m trying to build, it does not have to be a bad word.

 

Unanticipated Cake

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Looks scrummy and it is! You might think you don’t have a recipe for Unanticipated Cake, but I’ll bet you do because there are just so many recipes for it. Unanticipated Cake is the cake you make when you forget a key ingredient in the cake you anticipated making. So, for instance, this example of a Coffee and Walnut Cake where the walnuts remained safely contained in their plastic box whilst the coffee cake went into the oven. It’s a lovely example of a coffee cake, and I could call it Coffee Cake and pretend that is what I meant to make, but that would be a lie: it was my intention to make Coffee and Walnut Cake, so this can only be an Unanticipated Cake.

I generally find if I’m making a cake with “and” in the title, it is likely to end up as an Unanticipated Cake. It seems my mind can only hold onto the idea of one flavour. Chocolate and Orange? Yeah, gonna be chocolate or orange really, isn’t it? In fact, I should just substitue “and” with “or” in all recipes and be done with it!

One Book July Week 1

At the end of the first week of One Book July I thought I’d do a brief update on how I am finding it. At the start of the second day, I was reading in The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll about how valuable it is to re-write tasks as you progress through the days in your journal because it automatically gives you the incentive to examine the items you haven’t done and ask yourself why you haven’t done them. You will, at some point, become fed up with carrying forward an item and you will either knuckle down and do it or else decide that it is something that doesn’t need to be done and drop it completely. That stuck me as so sensible that I had to question why I was so keen to be able to move pages around in my notebook and prevent myself having to re-write things. I was so taken with this that I decided to change my plan for the month and move into a bound notebook, following Ryder Carroll’s methodology much more closely than I originally anticipated.

It turns out there are things I like about the bullet journal and things I am not so keen on. At heart, I know that there is nothing that will get me working on the things I need to work on apart from my own willpower; no system can kick-start that.

One of the things that I am resolutely refusing to do is replace my usual daily longhand journal with bullet journal. Whilst I can see the value of rapid logging of things that happen during the day but leaving them to be processed later, my daily journal is the ‘later’ – it is a quiet, reflective period where I can stand back and assess the things that happened the day before and record them.

However, for the on-the-go logging, recording of events, tracking of tasks, and general information about where I am and what I’m trying to achieve, the bullet journal is an interesting experiment to make.

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3 questions, then I can do it

ICDI a

If you are female, and living in the twenty-first century, you can’t have avoided seeing this inspirational phrase. Indeed, you may have it in your planner, or on your wall, more than likely printed in a calligraphy-style font, quite possibly in minimal black on white, or in rose-gold with some marbling if you’ve gone for more bling. It is a quote which is designed to motivate us and to stop us cowering within our comfort zone and I can see the appeal. However for it to be truly relevant I believe that it needs to be preceded by three very important questions.

ICDI b

As a standalone phrase, “I can do it” is very nebulous, and in reality it may be preferable to interpret the words as meaning “I can do anything I put my mind to”. In order put our minds to anything, we first have to determine exactly what it is. If we fall into the trap of believing we can do anything at all, but don’t decide on specific things to actually do, then we will just sit on a sofa forever (which, if I am honest, is one of the few things about which I can honestly say “I can do it”).

ICDI c

It is entirely probable that each of us can achieve anything we truly set our minds to, but we won’t do things if we do not have sufficient desire to do them. If we are not entirely honest with ourselves we will be able to come up with endless perfectly believable reasons why things are not going to plan and we are not reaching our objectives, but we need to see past those and question whether we really want to do what we are working towards. I have found that self-knowledge is hugely important when it comes time to set goals. I have to understand myself and what I really want to achieve; what makes me happy, or sad, or angry; what I can live with and live without. With a good understanding of myself and my motivations, I can look at the ideas my mind spawns and judge them not simply as to whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but whether they are something I really want to do.

ICDI d

The “I can do it” quote is not all alone in the universe, many of us also know the one that goes along the lines of “Good enough is done” – it is often recommended as an antidote for perfectionism. This is sound advice if you struggle with completing things because you are judging the results by unfeasibly high standards. This one always rings a little hollow with me, perhaps because I belong to a generation raised with the idea of achieving the best we possibly can. I know that it is not good for my soul if I feel I am are consistently submitting work that falls short of my best. Hand-in-hand with this goes my attitude that there is no point expending my energy on things that I am not ever going to be particularly good at. Naturally, how well I need to do a thing depends on the level to which I want to pursue it; I am an average swimmer and that is fine, but my standards for the things I do professionally are much higher because I want to be proud of my achievements and not feel that I am simply coasting along doing a “good enough” job.

So, here’s my take on “I can do it”:

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