Be yourself

It’s been a while since I did a post, a busy year one way or another, out of routine since Covid started or rather struggling to form a new one. Now it’s calmer and late Autumn which I arrive at with some relief. I’ve always liked the dying down time of year, the turn of the school year (always something of a school-loving swot) still echoing down through the decades. This ties in with the next episode I have excavated for The Diary Project – not diaries exactly but a bundle of notebooks dated 1981-1985, aged 13-17, charting a somewhat excruciating but significant born-again Christian phase I went through during adolescence. Oh dear.

These are prayer and Bible study notebooks I kept during that time. (I am pretty sure I also kept a more conventional journal/diary at this time, still to dig out.) And it is quite excruciating to read, to the extent that I can hardly bear to, to begin with. What an awful prig I was, judgemental, evangelical, holier than thou… How awful I must have been to be around. At the same time looking at these little lists it is nice to be reminded of people and things I had almost forgotten – people I was at school with, went to youth theatre and church with. For all the misguidedness I can see a kindness in myself – care for all these people, the good intention behind a prayer. In my prayers I have also listed things like ‘mocks’, ‘Mum’s drinking’ (an on-going issue), ‘my art’ – what was that back then? Can’t remember.

Reading these I am reminded how obsessive I was with it though. I spent a lot of time praying, Bible reading and attending church groups, all documented here. I did have doubts but on the surface had the answers to everything, banging on and probably annoying the hell out of people. ‘Gave to tracts X, Y & Z today’. I alienated myself from perfectly lovely friends and peers with my strangeness. I can see too though that having friends and being happy were not on the top of my list at the time. I struggled with the (obvious to me now) perversity of this, fighting feelings of ‘I don’t feel good’ with a more extreme hardline of ‘It’s not about feeling good, unbeliever!’  ‘I’VE GOT TO STOP THINKING THINGS AND START THINKING, BREATHING, OBEYING AND LIVING, LOVING THE WORD OF GOD’ I write in large capitals sideways across one page. On another I have scrawled ‘I don’t know how to TALK TO GOD like he’s real and living and listening, and who is he anyway? What is he like?’ I tied myself in terrible knots. What a harsh way for a creative young girl to live.

It was quite worrying, looking back and at the time. Christianity did not bring me peace unfortunately, my attraction to it more to do with the struggle I was having with adolescence. Ordinary adolescent rites of passage now open to me – parties, drinking and sexuality – scared me – and Christianity gave me a way to dodge the lot. Relationships outside marriage? Drinking and cavorting at parties? These were sins! Therefore it was right to avoid them – phew, that’s that sorted! Christianity gave me cut and dried rules to live by and simple right and wrong answers. It also gave me a way of managing or at least understanding my Mum’s drinking in similarly simplistic terms. This too was a wrong way of dealing with things and the solution to my Mum’s problems – and indeed everybody’s – was to be saved! Christianity enabled me to impose simplicity and a sense of control – even if only in my mind – over my life, myself and the world, all of which were becoming more complex and difficult as I left childhood.

Going through a religious phase is a typical rite of passage for many young people and one I am familiar with in my own understanding of my life story, and don’t judge myself too harshly for now. However as I re-read these little notebooks – notice my simple childish handwriting – the Garfield and Snoopy notebooks I chose – I can’t help feeling sad for my young self. I was so earnest and serious. I can see too how rules would appeal to me then – the so-appealing certainty they seem to offer. I have done this at other times in my life, joined tribes that seemed to give a clear framework of codes, rights and wrongs and regulations for belonging, adapting and denying myself to try to find my place, no matter how uncomfortable or imperfect a fit. 

My Christian phase lasted about 5 years according to the dates on these notebooks, ages 13-18, disturbingly longer than I remembered. I got in deep and despite having doubts, found it hard to backtrack. I had been so sure of myself and public about it. My parents were worried and would have been delighted for me to quit. But it was also an act of separation from them – what does the young person with liberal lefty parents do? Join a mainstream patriarchal religion of course. Plus they had given me cause to doubt them as mentors. I couldn’t admit to them of all people I felt confused or unsure now. But I see now how that made me even more lonely. Who was there to help me develop a healthy, more honest relationship with myself? It feels awful to look back and see I had no one to turn to support me through my multiple adolescent confusions. I hope things are different now.

Do I gain anything new from revisiting all this? I already knew it was about dodging adolescence. But I can see something more in it now – how I was trying to bypass or navigate some deeper feelings from home. My Mum’s drinking disturbed me hugely as I grew up. When she was drunk she would complain without restraint about her discontents with life. I tried to help her and minimise her problems by having none of my own. Christianity enabled me to extend a role of ‘being a grown-up’ taken on in childhood – adopting this (apparently) very grown-up position on how wayward everyone else was, having the answers to everything, saving everyone. It was a way of continuing to survive in this pseudo-adult way and not admit my (quite normal I see now) needs and confusions as a young person, for which there was no space at home. It also blocked out the awful possibility that me and my feelings were simply not important (not important enough for my mother to give space to or stop drinking for anyway). A child’s adaptive survival logic. Now however I am a grown-up – a real one – and see my younger self and the whole situation with softer eyes. This feels a lot better – and is something new.

My doubts did lead me to leave the Christian faith towards the end of the sixth form (aged 18). I remember praying about it – I took my crisis of faith to God on my knees. And for the first time I felt something concrete coming back – a message from God – ‘Be yourself’. It was the permission I needed and exactly what I needed to hear. By that time though I had kind of marooned myself away from so many friends and school was nearly over. I couldn’t go back, adolescence was nearly done, everyone was going their separate ways. My childhood sense of humour, playfulness, friendship – all had been eroded during those years. I had become so serious and sad. So though it was liberating to feel able to move on, I didn’t do so with a real spring in my step or much of a clue as to what next. I still had to find out how to ‘be myself’. So I entered adult life with an on-going sense of having to be my own grown-up – a useful survival skill that has served me well – but not necessarily entirely healthy on its own. However since then ‘being myself’ has been a key driver throughout my life – perhaps been my life’s work – trying to uncover who I am, seeking recovery from the past, finding self-expression, exploring my work in the world. And writing has been a key part of that. 

I look back at my earliest writings with mixed feelings. It has been very hard to do this blog post, taken months on and off, not merely because of the busyness of life (the preferred excuse), but also the emotional and psychological task of it. I have begun, touched base with it and wandered away – noticed a reluctance to return – felt burdened by it. So why do it? I am beginning to ask this myself. I was recently with a group of friends my age (50s+) talking about diaries – it seems a midlife rite of passage to get rid of this stuff. There was a consensus not to re-read but simply chuck or destroy. Why revisit the excruciating and painful and get churned up? Those writings had done their purpose in the writing of them. And I get that, having experienced the therapeutic benefits of writing through my life countless times.

However there have been benefits to re-reading these notebooks and writing my way through again. For the first time I have been able to give my younger self – not the pseudo-grown-up ‘pull yerself together’ attitude I did at the time – but the kindness and understanding of a real grown-up – me – the gentle, insightful, rounded adult I am now. My younger self – I – have never received that before. This has been healing, and perhaps contributes to why I feel more excited now, not so much with the past, but with the present and the future. Isn’t life to be lived now? (Who cares about all this old stuff?!)

Through these last few months, in the spaces in between, I have felt myself already letting go of it – the 5+ banana boxes of diaries and other paper mementoes weighing heavily on my attic rafters. On a purely practical level it has taken over three years to start this project, nearly one to begin to look at the material, 6 months to do this latest post, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. At this rate I’ll be doing it till I die. I looked through these notebooks quite quickly, and though it was the original plan to look at all of this material in some depth, actually faced with that, I feel a shift – do I really want or need to do that? The amount of material and intensity of the task feels overwhelming. Have I not got plenty from this alone? With these notebooks my instinct now is to skip over – for example the pages and pages of bible quotes – maybe I could use them creatively, cut them up and make found poetry out of them? Why not? Meaning can be made through the random creative process as much as the preconceived plan. And I don’t want to be doing this forever.

So I carry on, happy to have received a healing through this episode, and that I have allowed myself to feel all the things I do about this project – curiosity and resistance – which gives me permission to play – to change what I originally envisaged as I go, to let it find its own way.

Some of this material is going to be the subject of a MSc dissertation in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. I will revisit fragments of it using reflective and creative writing (a little as I have here) and create some small performative piece, including potentially – a bonfire! Watch this space. Perhaps a few fragments will be all I ever need to do of this project – or at least this study will help me find the way forward with the rest. 

Starting proper

So I’ve started. I hoicked a few items out of a banana box a while ago to start the process of going through my lifetime’s diaries. These are not the ones I am really looking for, the adolescent journals I first confided in. These are earlier, childhood diaries of family summer holidays aged 10-13, all written in the same soft back book (somewhat water-splattered) covering Ireland, Lancaster, Wales and France, 1978-1981. 

They are pretty dull. In fact they are so boring I can barely be bothered to read them. ‘Today is very wet and cold. In the morning Mum, Dad and brother went shopping, while sister and me went blackberry picking.’ You get the idea. The first one, Ireland, 1978, is only 4 entries and 5 pages long. It has the feel of a school holiday project I was probably tasked with by my mother but quickly got bored with and dropped. I notice this kind of record-keeping detail of life is not what interests me about diary writing then or now. 

Some of it makes me laugh. 16 August 1978, departing the overnight ferry to Ireland: ‘We were woken at 6am to get up. We washed, dressed and packed. Then we went to the car. We had to wait a bit to get out, because some stupid nit had left a lorry trailer in front of us.’ Stupid nit! I can hear my parents saying that! My sad fascination with collecting paper mementoes is becoming evident. 18 Aug 1980 in Wales: ‘Later that morning we went into Machynlleth and Mum and Dad did some shopping. I got 29 leaflets from the Tourist Information centre.’ 19 Aug: ‘I got some more leaflets at the post office and station and now I have 56.’ 20 Aug: ‘We went to the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway. I got some more leaflets and now I have 62.’ Oh dear! (The worrying thing is these 62+ leaflets might still be in one of the banana boxes in the attic…)

However I feel a fondness for my child self. I notice things I don’t remember that well – like doing more with my Dad than I remember which is nice. An adult now, and as someone who always felt a bit of a grown up in the family, I feel a new respect for my Mum and Dad – packing the Peugeot estate with themselves, three kids, usually my Grandma and Auntie too, organising and driving us from North Hertfordshire to South West Ireland, then Lancashire, Wales, France. The diaries remind me fondly of a general sense of my childhood and fun times we had as a family doing simple lovely things. 29 July 1979: ‘After some time we stopped for lunch by the River Hodder. We went paddling in the river and had a great time.’ We did have a great time. Paddling about in nature is still something I love to do: here it began.  

However it is also shocking how little I remember of this. I always thought re-reading things would re-boot memories that were buried there somewhere, but I find this is not the case. Apparently we went to Lancaster Castle, the River Lune, Aberystwyth – some of which places I’ve been to several times since as an adult – but can I remember these childhood visits? No I cannot. 

As I have aged I have tried to fight my paper-hoarding tendencies and make an effort to keep less as I go along, both personal and administrative. In recent years I have written less journal material, partly because I simply don’t want to as much, but also aware that the more I write, the more I will have to go through and dispose of down the line. I now have only one box of administrative papers which is not allowed to grow. Every year as a self-employed person I file away last year’s records, taking out the ones from 7 years previous for permanent disposal. There is something satisfying in this annual ritual – quickly sifting the old stuff for any paper re-useable for scrap, salvaging any plastic wallets for re-use, putting most of it in the fire bin. Weight is lifted, it is moved on and gone. At the same time in amongst the 2013/14 pile I happened upon an expenses chit from the BBC from when I was on Midweek in 2013 – a souvenir I put aside to keep. What other gems might I be tossing out without a glance? I am still torn between ‘does it matter?’ and finding it hard to let go.

In reading these diaries I notice things I remember but haven’t written down – a tantrum I threw in Lancaster when my brother refused to continue to lend me his marvellous 10 colour biro I was using to write the diary, a different colour every day. I ranted about this in this very diary but must have changed my mind and ripped out the pages because there is nothing there now, only an abrupt change of pen colour from pink to black mid-sentence. I can see too the ‘good girl’ I was trying to be in writing these, probably to please my Mum who loved words, reading and writing. I may have showed her these holiday diaries proudly or I might have taken them to school for a project. Most are written in the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’. They are not a place of intimate confessions. I haven’t written about the times I remember my Mum being drunk on these holidays, a regular feature of my growing up. In the latter 2 years of it (1980-81, age 12-13) I have recorded such moments with a little coded symbol in the corner of a page – a wine glass with bubbles and the letters ‘MWD’ = ‘Mum was drunk’. There is something terribly sad looking at this now and it’s true my Mum’s drinking troubled me hugely when I was growing up. In later adolescent journals I wrote about it a lot and there was at least a year when I recorded daily incidents of it in this kind of shorthand coded way. Perhaps the process began here. Though I was not confiding details of such tricky moments to paper – writing the story here only as simple happy times – this does not change the more complex memories I have always had of these events.

My Mum’s drinking is something I am now at peace with. I was able to re-write the story I left adolescence with – that she had fundamentally let me down – into something else, through a lifelong process of journal writing, personal, shamanic and other therapeutic work, walking beside her in the last difficult years of her life, and simply growing up. This all came together in the written and performative work I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed To Be Doing (about my Mum) in 2015-20. In The Diary Project I am examining now the multiple relationships I have had through my life with writing (personal, creative and performative) and personal journey. Any life story can be re-written, but it can take a life time.

I am interested not only in remembering but in forgetting. Having watched my Mum go through a traumatic experience of dementia over a number of years it has occurred to me since that perhaps if we were less attached to memories in the first place there would be less distress in forgetting them. Is it important to remember everything? I find myself reaching towards a Zen ideal of being perfectly in the moment – where I am now – never mind the past. At the same time, reading these childhood diaries, remembering happy times and the best of my now gone parents has been very comforting this last week or 2. So to remember or forget?

I am still puzzling why I have kept so much of this stuff and what I hope to find tracing through it all. (One diary down, 4.99 banana boxes to go…) What can it tell me about myself or my life? Who is the reliable narrator? The child Emma who wrote it 40+ years ago, or the more mature Emma who has forgotten a lot and/or remembers something else? Am I too much fixated on the past anyway and not enough on the present and future? I feel a growing urgency to engage with what is meaningful and useful right now in this historic moment I find myself in at 53. Is this useful? Can it help?

I am also still stuck with what to do with this diary now. Having read it, shall I now chuck it? Should I transcribe it? (That’ll be a task if I do all of them, and it is very boring…) Photograph every page? (I’d still have the task of keeping digital files in some order.) Ultimately I want to edit all this down into something, but what? If I am constructing a new creative autobiography, what does this volume in particular add to it? (I’m sure no one needs to know on 18 Aug 1978 it was wet and cold in Ireland and I went blackberrying with my sister.)

So for now I am stuck with it till I’ve been through a few more and a pattern and process begin to emerge. This project is telling me something about my relationship with writing and the shifting nature or importance of memory. I am excited too at the idea of getting rid and lightening the load, not least on the rafters of my attic floor. I have visions of making ceremony down the line – a ritual fire, or pulping them with water to make new paper out of the old, creating proper clean sheets. Tearing them up, or making found poetry, or folded or artists books. Who knows? There will be one or 2 I keep for sentimental reasons, but I don’t know yet if this will be one of them. And I can’t keep them all. 

Where I am now

Starting somewhere

I have wanted to start a blog for a long time. I set up this Cicatrix site nearly 3 years ago with that very purpose… No actual posts till now. Clearly I’ve found it difficult to start. Who will read it? I don’t know but that doesn’t feel crucially important right now. I am just clear now that I want to connect more with the world – with my words, thoughts, ideas, whatever – put it ‘out there’ – attempt to connect. And be brave with that – face being ignored, criticised, whatever may come. I want to be part of some sort conversation in the public domain and have a regular writing output. It will be good for me. Push at my hermit edges. And bring all of myself to it including my fears. At Spring Equinox I picked a card – the Magician – ‘He creates the present moment with his keen skill.’ Isn’t that a skill. After being stuck in a long clenched moment of ‘wtf’ since last March, a year later I finally let go. Breathed out. On the anniversary of the first lockdown I found myself sobbing copiously with it all. And then what?… Breathe in again I suppose. We are all in the middle of a collective trauma no one can see to the other side of.

I am happy to say I survived last year pretty well all in all, including as a creative freelancer. Some part of me (a part I didn’t know existed) kicked in and Got On With It. I created small manageable pieces of work – events and experiences – that I could run from home myself and adapt as necessary: Words in the Wild – a performance of poetry in the landscape last Summer; The Wheel of Nature Writing Workshop – a weekly online drop-in workshop since last Autumn. All I needed (for Words in the Wild) was my creative work (a set of poems) and knowledge of the landscape; for The Wheel of Nature – my skills and ideas as a facilitator; for both, my computer, internet, pre-existing network of folks who know and/or like and my work to build customers from. It worked. I liked having that direct relationship with the customer – taking every booking, delivering the output, taking small direct payment in exchange for a job well done, all adding up to – Enough. I kept the small boat of my life afloat, even thrived in my small way. I am proud of myself. Turns out I am grown up who can take care of herself after all. Who knew?

For me it certainly felt an easier and more manageable strategy than trying to find work with lots of arts organisations, theatres, public bodies – not only because it meant competing with every other creative for funds and opportunities in organisations beset with their own uncertainty and/or collapse. I have long been uncertain how or where to locate myself and my work in this bigger thing – The World. What is my identity or work? How do I describe it? Who are my audience, my people? (It’s so much easier to be a hermit.) As I began exploring in the title of my last show, what am I supposed to be doing? As an artist? A human being? The pandemic threw up this question even more urgently, not just for me. One decision I made without even thinking was not doing any work I don’t want to do anymore. Though that idea has been floating around for a while – I’m in my 50s, time running out to do what I want with what’s left of my working life – I was surprised how definite I was about that. So when I began creating work last year I wasn’t thinking about ‘The World’ or how or where my work might fit in it, I just created the work I wanted to explore and do, completely believing in it. A key feature of this was bringing a long-standing personal engagement with nature directly into it. In that both Words in the Wild and The Wheel of Nature hit something of the moment as it turned out. Last year was a threshold, where I began to manifest a more complete blend of all aspects of myself in my work, including relationship with nature, personal development, creative writing and performance. I am still exploring what my work is – what to call it – where it fits Out There – and maybe meandering my way through it via a blog might help.

I did find it hard to write or create anything much new last year, though creativity came into the events. What I am supposed to be doing in my creative work has been more difficult to access. But I find my head turning that way now. Another purpose for writing this blog is a space to explore a new project which has been on the back-burner for a while, which I call The Diary Project. I imagine it will be my last autobiographical work – having done 2 shows – Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth about my Dad (2010-15), I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed To Be Doing about Mum (2015-20) – autobiographical work never being something I set out to do, I’d be kind of glad of a change of subject. But I’m not there yet. The Diary Project involves going through my entire life’s personal diaries, papers, writings in a bid to ‘make sense’ of my life, work, my relationship with writing – and to edit or dispose of this material one way or another before I die. I’ve always thought I would do this ‘one day’ – like when I retire. In more recent years that idea has become less abstract and I’ve thought it might be as well to start it sooner rather than later – and that it might be a rich source of new creative work. Sadly there are at least 5 banana boxes of this crap in the attic going back to adolescence. It is daunting and I expect excruciating which is why I have struggled to start. But I do want to (I certainly don’t want any other poor sod to end up with the job) – And it feels like there could be something rich in it – something about memory, legacy, mortality, the stories we create of ourselves, forgetting, putting the past away, creating the present and the future whatever that will be. 

I’ll start next week.