Monday Miscellany

1. Finally something properly good has happened for my son. He has a job in a well-known pub in London’s West End. This was entirely his own doing – he put together a CV and went around the pubs in his vicinity, asking if any were short-staffed, gradually widening his circle. Last week he did a couple of trial shifts and today he begins behind the bar. He says the people seem nice and it’s really, really busy. I am so pleased for him; to rescue oneself is a powerful experience. I had a post half written in my head about what it’s been like these past few months, and what we’ve all learned from them, but I can’t bring myself to write it down today. I feel worn out with relief.

2. One thing, though, is that recovery is not a linear event. It is circular. Round and around we go, pressing the bruises, feeling the pain, stepping back, irresistibly drawn to pressing them again. It seems like stasis, like being stuck, but more preparation for change is going on than we imagine. The paradox is that the emotional pain gets worse every time those bruises are pressed, not better, because each time we confront the reality of what has happened with more clarity, each time we can bear to face it a little more.

3. Another paradox: I believe that if we can find someone to help us bear witness to our big emotions and then feel them without any of those complicating problems of shame or embarrassment, then we can work through emotions much faster. But it’s very, very hard to be that witness, particularly for people we love. Their pain is our pain. Watching them suffer arouses unresolved emotions of our own. And emotion exerts a huge pressure of distortion. When we are not in the same place, the emotional person seems quite mad, such is the extent of distortion. And then we long to bring their perspective back in line with the reality we’ve all agreed is sane.

4. I think we have too limited an understanding of what sanity is, and that it’s easy to be afraid of anything lying beyond those narrow confines. I think there’s far too much insistence on people being strong and happy and flawless, that this ignores the reality of what it is to be human. If we don’t acknowledge negative emotions in ourselves, then either they turn inwards and attack us with anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of trust, or else they get displaced. When people rage and rant in an excessive way, about things that are irritating or annoying, yes, but maybe not as bad as all that, then I think it’s displaced emotions coming out over some issue that feels more justified than the one that caused the emotions in the first place. And then there’s the third option: contempt or indifference towards people in pain. The urge to think oneself superior, better than that. It’s a strong position inside but ugly from the outside.

5. Hmm, I’ll stop before I actually write the post I said I wouldn’t write, but I will add that any deduction I’ve made above comes from the trial and error of getting it wrong a lot of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of learning from mistakes.

6. I must apologise for being so bad at commenting on other blogs lately. I’m reading, but my thinking-of-the-right-thing-to-say muscle seems to be weary. I’m not actually in the mood for writing much of anything.

7. I have been watching a lot of television, which is most unusual for me. Mr Litlove was competing in the town rowing races last week, which meant I could watch whatever I liked. I ended up really getting into the first season of Downton Abbey, and whilst I am probably the last person in the world to watch it, I have to say it was completely splendid. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is brilliant, and the casting of Mr Bates was a stroke of genius (though I fear for that man’s fate – he has the face for suffering). I really admired the way the multiple storylines were handled; only the very last episode tried to squeeze too much in. My mum has the next two series on DVD and I guess I’ll be borrowing them from her.

8.  I’ve also been enjoying the sheer madness that is Boston Legal. I think these must be the most unprofessional bunch of lawyers ever to tread the far margins of legal ethics, but once again the acting is the thing. James Spader is outrageously good; he manages to be simultaneously arrogant and supercilious and dangerous and endearing and charismatic with more integrity than all the others put together. Plus seeing William Shatner as a complete psycho is a lot of fun, and very un-Captain Kirkish.

9. We’ve also been watching Hustle, which is Mr Litlove’s favourite and the one he always votes for, when it comes to a vote. We’ve watched the first four seasons and there’s hardly been a duff episode. They’re conmen (and woman) but with Robin Hood’s philosophy and it’s a treat to find something that’s a lot of fun as well as neatly plotted and rather smart. I never tire of watching the baddies brought down. If only such prescience were available in reality!

 

 

Various Updates

I realised that there have been a few ongoing plotlines chez Litlove that I haven’t updated lately. For instance, my painful arm and shoulder which I thought for a long time was due to a trapped nerve. You may recall (though I forgive you if you don’t, it’s been a while) that I had had both osteopathy and phyiotherapy with no particular result. My arm seemed to be settling into its compromised movement and nothing made an impact on it. So I decided to try the Alexander Technique.

Well, never has there been a better example of brain triumphing over brawn. The Alexander Technique is extremely gentle, a lot of patting and smoothing by my practitioner who has gradually been easing the knots out of my nerves and muscles. I’ve had about five or six sessions and almost unbelievably, the situation is improving. I can move my arm far more freely than I could before, and with only the odd twinge here and there. After seven months of zero progress and being cracked and twisted and pummelled in often painful ways, this feels nothing short of miraculous. My only problem is I’m too scared of tempting fate to triumphantly announce my cure. So we won’t go there. But my goodness, has she made an improvement! People, if you have muscular-skeletal issues, find yourself an Alexander Technique practitioner. It’s not just effective, it’s actively pleasant. My practitioner is not a great talker, though she likes a laugh, and my memory of our sessions will be of her uncluttered room with sunlight streaming in and the extreme peacefulness of her gentle attention. And of course the tap-dancing skeleton, who has also become a serene witness, his skull a little on one side in quizzical observation.

The problem has been caused not so much by repetitive strain as repetitive bad posture. My left hand is the one I hold books in, and my practice has been to tuck my elbow into my side while I read and bend my head down towards the page. Over the winter months, when I get chilly from sitting still, I tend to carry around my microwaveable wheat baggie, which I also stick under my left arm – it’s got a book at the end of it and is clamped to my side anyway, hence the arrangement. And my left side is the one I go to sleep on, often with that arm wedged underneath me. So twenty-four-seven that arm has been held at an awkward angle without my noticing what I was doing. The muscles at the back of my neck and down into my shoulder have probably scrunched up into a big clump that was putting pressure on the bone, and muscles have a long and persistent memory. It will take a while to remind them that they do not have to exist in their old, embattled position. I need to make long-term adjustments to my practices – books propped on cushions on my lap or in book stands on a table, a writing slope for taking notes and much reduced use of my laptop.

I’m still considering taking up pilates in the summer, but I’ll definitely be sticking with tai chi. I started in the beginners’ class back at the end of January and have recently moved up to what they call ‘continuing’ classes. This was a shock to the system. I’d grown to love my beginners’ class and our tight little group of four initiates and four experts. We spent our weeks slowly learning a whole ‘set’ of tai chi which has over a hundred moves in it. I can do it, so long as I’ve got people around me I can follow – as our instructor said, the one thing tai chi really improves is your peripheral vision – and I think it’s beautiful. The movements are slow and graceful and often satisfying in a profound way I don’t have words to describe. This alone is probably very good for me – the fact it’s a couple of non-verbal hours in my life. Oddly enough I’ve turned out to be good at it, which is surprising after all those years of being a sports dunce and the last person picked for any team. And of course I don’t feel particularly good at it; it just feels sort of straightforward to do. Doubtless years of ballet as a child helped. Being twenty years younger than the others is my secret weapon.

So, anyway, I’ve moved up to the next class which is packed. There must be thirty or so people who turn up for it, and after the expansiveness of being eight in a large hall, we’re now all crammed in sardine-like which has proved hot the past few weeks. We begin by going twice through the full set, which feels like it might last forever (in reality it lasts about 40 minutes). And then we do a bunch of foundation exercises, which we do for another long, long time. After that comes a 25 minute break and then a final half hour working on a small part of the form. I’m gradually meeting a few people as they are all very friendly. Two sisters introduced themselves to me, one of whom, poor woman, is currently fighting two types of cancer which is more courage than I can imagine having. She was cheerier than me, too, which was rather humbling. ‘Did you tell her about your bad arm?’ Mr Litlove asked me when I recounted this. ‘And your sore gum?’ Husbands, dontcha love ‘em? I actually told her sister that I’d had 13 years of chronic fatigue and felt let off lightly by comparison. Lots of people in the class have health reasons for being there, as it’s supposed to be a very gentle but effective exercise. Gentle and effective is certainly what’s working for me right now.

And then my son is still not exactly what you’d call happy, but he has recently signed onto a temp agency that supplies waiters and bar staff to social functions. He’s done this mostly under his own steam, and is hopeful that it will earn him a bit of cash and give him useful skills and experience. In about ten days time he is going on holiday to Spain with ten of his friends, which is the good news. The bad news is that his ex-girlfriend is one of them and they began organising the trip before they split. Goodness only knows what will come of this trip; it could be anything from some necessary closure to emotional chaos. But my son has evidently thought it all through and decided he wants to go nevertheless. Even though he knows it’s not likely, I expect there’s a part of him that hopes they might get back together, which Mr Litlove fears but I doubt. ‘Though if we do get back together, I won’t tell you and Dad,’ he said, to which threat I couldn’t help but smile and say that the list of things I didn’t need to be told was surprisingly long and included dangerous expeditions, late night emo showdowns and trips to the ER. My neighbour was telling me her theory the other day that we have been too nice to our kids while they were growing up and so are involved in their adolescent shenanigans when their normal response ought to be to keep them well out of our sight. I like that theory; I may just run with it.

 

In Which I Try Something New

You may recall a while back (October to be precise), I began having trouble with my left arm. The first thing I noticed was how painful it was to put my car into second gear. I thought I had probably pulled a muscle, but when it wasn’t getting better a month or so later, I went to see the osteopath. He said it was a pinched nerve in my neck, manipulated my spine, and the whole thing went from being an irritating nuisance to a big, painful problem that involved me spending way too much time pressing a bag of frozen sweetcorn to my neck. I then went and saw a physiotherapist, who said that the nerves down my arm were too tight, and that there was a posture issue; my shoulder was too far forward and I needed to pull my shoulder blades in at every opportunity. Well, for a while I saw both of them, was rubbed and cracked and generally pulled about and submitted to all manner of awkward exercises. As the months have gone by, I have gradually improved at the exercises, but my arm has not stopped hurting. These days, I can change into second gear okay, but if I hold my arm out straight, I can’t bend it out to the side from the elbow.

I stopped seeing the physio when his treatment didn’t seem to make the least bit of difference, and I have also decided recently not to go back to the osteopath because I really loathe being cracked, and there isn’t much else he likes to do. Plus, between you and me, he’s a bit of an insufferable smartie-pants.

And then last week, I realised my right arm was starting to cause me trouble too. Quite different this time, in that it was mostly my little finger that was feeling sort of numb and tingly, and sometimes there’d be a twinge in my right shoulder. Well, after spending some time with my head on the desk thinking, I cannot go on, I decided to look for a new practitioner. For a while I considered a pilates class, but the problem there is that if I can’t do half the exercises because of my dodgy left arm, I won’t actually be improving anything. And then I saw a link to an Alexander Technique teacher and I recalled the lovely Susan saying that she was a convert; so I thought I’d give it a try.

I nearly backed out before I’d even begun. When I rang the woman to make an appointment and told her about my immobile left arm she said, ‘Gosh, how strange! I’ve never heard of that before.’ Which did not inspire me with confidence, I can tell you. Then when it came to the day itself, I was tired and had one of those skull-tightening headaches that do not make a person pleased to be out in the world. But the prospect of never being able to high five anyone ever again was just enough to propel me into the car and across town.

My teacher was by no means a spring chicken, but she certainly had exceptional posture. The room I entered was quite bare apart from a chair, a treatment bed and a small skeleton that hung at such an odd angle from its hook that I had to wonder if it hadn’t been tap-dancing while alone and was then obliged to freeze mid-shuffle when we came in. It was so quiet that all I could hear was the pounding of my headache in my temples. My teacher ushered me into the seat and had me stand and sit down a few times. Then she began patting and smoothing me down with her hands, often one (blissfully cool) hand on my forehead, while the other traced the pattern of my bones. Every once in a while, she would pat a little more firmly, and another piece of my skeleton would slide into a quite different position. It was extraordinary.

‘Yes,’ she said after a while. ‘You don’t look bad from the outside, but in fact, on the inside it’s all quite asymmetrical.’ She did another pat and slide and shift. ‘There, that’s nice.’

‘Story of your life, isn’t it?’ said Mr Litlove when I was recounting the session to him later. ‘You look all right from the outside, quite a viable human being, even. And then inside is a mess.’

‘Thank you, dear,’ I said.

I gave my teacher a potted history of my life. Academia, then years off with chronic fatigue, and now writing full time. Those years of being ill when I did nothing but lie about on beds and sofas would have ruined any muscle tone I had. And then the gradual return to work saw me hunched over a laptop (which everyone has agreed fervently are the work of the devil, as far as one’s spine is concerned) for what has been now, astoundingly, the past six years. It’s no wonder I’m all out of alignment. She showed me how lightly attached are the collar bones and the shoulder blades, floating almost above the ribcage and easy to displace. The skeleton hung its head sympathetically and I kept a close eye on it – I imagined its lethargy was faked and it might break into a spirited rendition of 42nd Street at any moment.

The exercise I’ve been given is to lie flat on the floor, my knees bent, with a book about two inches thick under my head for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, several times a day. Finally, an exercise I can embrace wholeheartedly! When I read, I have to prop the book up on cushions so I’m not taking the weight of it in my arms. The toughest thing at the moment is the fact that both reading and typing definitely make my shoulders and elbows twinge and my little finger go numb. Reading and typing are what I do; they are what I am, and I don’t really want voice recognition software as I think through my fingers. So somehow, some way I simply have to get this fixed. I have no idea whether the Alexander Technique will help me more than the other solutions I’ve tried, but it was certainly a most restful and soothing experience. I left without a headache and feeling strangely light on my feet. And I’m looking forward to going again. Back in the days when I took Chinese medicine I used to love having my pulse taken, and this feels analogous. It’s a special pleasure to have another person being gently attentive to the internal machine.

 

A Photo, Two Links and a Mystery

Well this must be a first: I don’t think I’ve ever posted a proper photo of myself on this site and I wouldn’t break the routine now if it weren’t in honor of a very special event. Last week, the editors of Shiny New Books all met up in Piccadilly, London, for tea and, of course, book shopping (just on the wild offchance you might be curious, the books I bought were: Fin & Lady by Cathleen Shine, The Carriage House by Louisa Hall and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer). Here we are, having more or less talked ourselves to a standstill.

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Harriet, Annabel, Me and Simon

 

We’re now in the thick of reading and reviewing for our next full edition, which will be out at the start of July. But before then, we’ll be updating our spring magazine with a few more reviews and features – our newsletter will contain the full details. I’ve been busy piecing together the life of crime fiction writer, Celia Fremlin, whose novels have recently been re-issued by Faber & Faber. It’s been rather exciting as no biography of her exists, so I’ve been trawling the web and the libraries for information, and swapping opinions with Harriet, who’s reviewing the books. Hitchcock adapted Fremlin’s first novel, The Hours Before Dawn, for one of his television programs, and you can still watch it online. I can see exactly why her stories appealed to him – domestic settings, creeping menace, women in peril, psychological terror. You can read all about it in May.

On that note, of really good books I’ve read for SNB, I thought I might point you in the direction of a couple of non-fiction reviews of mine.

mad girls love songAndrew Wilson’s new biography of Sylvia Plath, focusing on the years before she met Ted Hughes, was one of those books that I felt ambivalent about reading. I’d read biographies of Plath before – what could he do to surpass the wonderful Janet Malcolm bio, The Silent Woman? Well, he doesn’t surpass it, but the book was highly engaging, full of detail about Sylvia’s obsessively competitive nature, and her strenuous dating regime (one summer she dated 21 boys and rated them all with a star system). I was reading about the psychological factors involved in manic depression just the other day (as you do), and realised that the classic ‘storyline’ of the illness exactly fit Sylvia’s profile – a mother who singles out one of her children to be special and raise the family’s status, confusing the child with her mixture of love and fierce disciplinary strictures and becoming irrevocably mixed up with the child’s goals, so the child is no longer sure to whom they actually belong. Scary stuff.

‘In Andrew Wilson’s fascinating account of Sylvia Plath before she met Ted Hughes, she comes across as the Britney Spears of the poetry world. There’s the same economically-challenged background, of which she is slightly ashamed, with ambiguous relationships to her parents, the same precocious talent, and the same crazy ambition….’ Read full review.

falling into the fireAnother book I loved was Christine Montross’s Falling into the Fire, a portrait of her work as emergency admissions doctor in a psychiatric inpatient ward. The publicist who sent me the book warned me that I’d wince at the stories, and oh my, she was not kidding. The book opens with an account of a woman who eats light bulbs, screws, medical instruments – every hospital room has to be stripped clean before she can be put in it, or else she’ll eat the contents. But drama and sensation aside, what I really appreciated in this book was the careful consideration of medical ethics that is the reason Montross tells these stories in the first place. What actually happens to the impossible psychiatric cases? Who is responsible for these suffering people and what can be done to help them? I found it an engrossing and complex work.

‘I begin to wonder whether there is an entry in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for readers like me, who find themselves fascinated by accounts of people struggling with the different illnesses it defines. I’ve long been a reader of ‘shrink lit’, books based on psychotherapy, and now I’m branching into the popular literature on psychiatry, for which Oliver Sacks is the main torch bearer. Following in his footsteps with great compassion, intelligence and a wealth of completely bonkers patients is Christine Montross… Read full review

However, I’ve been complaining of late about the string of small but unpleasant catastrophes that have afflicted me recently, and now the universe has really stopped pulling its punches. I’ve realised that over the past 10 days or so, I’ve lost five books in the post. I’m going to the village post office for the second time later today to be put in touch with the local customer service rep to try and get this sorted out. I’d like to be all Nancy Drew about it – this is after all the tale of The Postman Doesn’t Ring Once, Let Alone Twice. But actually I’m just cross. People are sending me books, and they are not reaching me. What sort of heinous crime is this?