The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.



The Tai Chi Class

‘Now remember,’ said Mr Litlove, as he was leaving for work on Thursday morning, ‘the first time you go, you always meet the weirdos. So don’t judge this one, okay?’

‘Mmmm,’ I said, carefully neutral. The first tai chi class was scheduled for that morning and I’d been saying for weeks now that I was going to go. Needle-thin rain was falling steadily from a slate grey sky, I wasn’t sure where the community centre was, and it felt like very early in the morning for me, though it was almost nine o’clock. Ever since I’ve had chronic fatigue, first thing in the morning is not my finest hour. But as unenthusiastic as I felt, I was determined to make it. Whether I’d ever go a second time, though, was not a decision I was about to call.

As I rummaged about in the wardrobe, trying to find something that would do to wear, I felt even more insecure about the whole thing. I do not possess sportswear, as I do not possess a sporting bone in my body. The only thing I could face pulling on were an old pair of comfy jogging bottoms, all potatoed out at the knees, which I’d bought many years ago in a sale. This accounted for the fact they were trimmed in magenta, which matched precisely nothing else I owned. I’m not quite sure why, but I was convinced the room would be packed with trendy fitness-oriented mothers, their offspring parked in school for the day and keen to do something healthy and uplifting for themselves. I could just picture myself shuffing in, looking like a bag lady in all the layers I deemed necessary to stay warm in January. But still, layers were more important than vanity. So to top off my spectacularly un-coordinated outfit, I added my woolen zip-up cardigan with a hood, in a very nice sea-green colour. Alongside the magenta trim it was a statement of something, but probably best not to say what.

The community centre was easier to find that I’d feared (which ruined one excuse for going straight home), although it was one of those buildings with a wide array of full glass doors, only one of which opens. A few minutes later I found a way in, and then I was inside a building that was like every other community centre in the world, most probably. A central seating area papered with flyers and posters held some retired people, having tea (and probably enjoying the spectacle of people out in the rain pushing futilely at fixed glass panels), then there were two long whitewashed corridors heading off at right angles. It wasn’t hard to locate the large gym-like room in which the tai chi class met, though it wasn’t exactly easy to step over the threshold.

I arrived in the room in the blank and bewildered state of the newcomer, looking, I don’t doubt, pretty gormless. The first thing I noticed was that there were no young mothers in bendy yoga poses. In fact, I lowered the average age of the class by about twenty years.

‘Are you here to join us today?’ someone said brightly by my side. I turned and saw a neat grey-haired lady wearing a red t-shirt with a dragon on the front. She had, I noticed, a little Parkinsons shake about her head and neck and looked to be in her early seventies. ‘I’m Margot, the course instructor. Have you done any tai chi before?’

As a matter of fact, I had. But this was many years ago, when I’d gone to an evening class in a dance studio in Ely. The instructor was a Chinese man who’d taken us through the first section of the form with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Every single movement had to be exact; he would come and shift a shoulder or an elbow a fraction of a centimetre, turn a head a quarter of an inch. I’d enjoyed it, though. As a child I did a lot of ballet, and although I had all sorts of habits to unlearn, it still felt enough like dance to be a relatively natural form of movement for me. That was a long time ago, though.

The class was forming out of an amorphous crowd as Margot called us all to attention. Although it was a beginners’ class, there were clearly several people who had been to workshop days as they were all wearing the same kind of t-shirt. I noticed a squat little old lady who had to be eighty if she were a day, whose chin was so sunk into her shoulders that she didn’t appear able to look left or right. She had one of the t-shirts on. In front of me was a bearded man, early sixties at a guess, in a zipped up navy blue fleece, to my left a thin, shy-looking woman, to my right a woman who I loved immediately because she was wearing a magenta t-shirt, making me feel right at home, both of them in their fifties. The class moved at a cracking pace, so by the time we’d got through the introductory segment that Margot wanted to teach us, we’d reached as far in the form as I had in three months with the Chinese instructor. Everyone around me had been surprisingly competent. I felt that it might be embarrassing if I needed a sit-down before they did.

There was a small kerfuffle at the back as a few latecomers arrived at the door. I saw my elderly lady with the sunken head shuffling off to greet them.

‘No, Edna,’ Margot called. ‘I want Terry to go. No, Edna. Edna, NO!’

Edna, who was clearly quite deaf when spoken to from behind was retrieved by her sprightly young seventy-year-old friend and we went through what we’d learned one last time. After that there was to be a break, and then the new people were to sit at the front and watch the old people, in every sense of the word, go through the complete form. I was doing a bit of useless hovering by the water jug and glasses when I was saved by a man who came to chat to me. Tall, another beard, ohh, mid-fifties, probably.

‘I’d been ill,’ he said, ‘and this has been terrific for me. Can’t believe how much better I feel.’

‘So you’re not a beginner?’ I asked, wondering if anyone was besides me.

‘Well I wouldn’t say that. I’ve supposedly just finished the beginners’ course.’

‘Will you be part of the…?’ I gestured towards the rows of people who were lining up for the full form. There must have been about thirty of them and the room was steadily filling up.

‘For my sins.’ He grinned at me. ‘We haven’t a clue what we’re doing.  It’s organised chaos.’

Margot was now calling the new people together (four of us in all) into seats in a semi-circle in front of the group. Edna was sitting with us, too.

‘I’m here to give moral support to the others!’ she said, with a sweet smile.

‘Edna,’ said Margot. ‘You can’t sit there, dear. You’ll have to move to the end. Go along, dear, move.’ Edna took her ousting with good nature and Margot moved in to give us a bit of history about the group while we watched the full form.

There is something strangely awe-inspiring about a large group of people who are moving in complete silence. The full form contains well over a hundred moves and the exercise went on and on, through its slow, careful movements. Oh there were pockets of organised chaos, and I loved the expression on people’s faces that clearly said ‘I have no idea what I should be doing now’, but the force of the group picked the stragglers up and soon they were back in step. As I watched them, I thought how extremely graceful they were. I think, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for us to move with grace. One man right in front of me had a walrus moustache, neatly combed grey-blonde hair and steel-rimmed aviator glasses. He had the sort of figure I’d describe as ‘cuddly’. But what a mover he was! He had the hand and arm movements down perfectly, the transitions between them flawless. He caught me watching and gave me a secret smile from beneath the walrus moustache, and by instinct I winked back.

There was a sudden, collective ‘HO!’ from the group, who slapped their thighs and caused us onlookers to nearly jump out of our skins.

‘We call that the principle boy move,’ said Margot, laughing. And I knew I wanted to learn that one. In fact, I wanted to learn them all. I had lost my heart, partly to tai chi, but mostly to my delightfully game new classmates, who moved like the chorus line from a grey version of Swan Lake. They looked wonderful.


A Chance Encounter

Just the other day I was stopped at traffic lights when I noticed a man with a bike at the side of the road, adjusting the chin strap of a very silly hat – the woolen kind with ear flaps that Sherlock Holmes might have worn, had he ridden a bike on a cold day. As I looked at him, so he turned to look at me, and the ‘Well, whaddya know’ expression on his face was terribly familiar. He started to raise his hand in greeting, the lights changed, I attempted to both shift gear and wave back, and his tentative wave gained purpose. Then I was halfway down the road and the moment had passed. I realised it was my old therapist, who I hadn’t seen in three years. I could see him now, framed in my rear view mirror, watching my car as I drove away.

I found I was relieved and also surprised that he’d waved at me. The manner of my leaving therapy hadn’t been easy or comfortable, and I remembered very clearly his response to me when I’d asked in the course of a session whether one day we could be friends. He’d said it wasn’t possible, because the relationship was such a delicate and particular one, it might alter too many things inside my head to shift its foundation in such a drastic way. I did understand; the relationship with a therapist is so unlike anything else, simultaneously intense and indifferent. And this therapist had been so keen on being a screen for me, not allowing himself to intrude on the space between us, which was bizarre at times because he practised from his home.

There’d been the long months when he was having an extension built and the noise of drilling and hammering had been a real irritant, and then other times when his young sons did their piano practice in the next room, or occasionally exclaimed to one another ‘That is so cool!’ which always made me laugh. I thought he was a good therapist, but the psychodynamic approach was the one part I never appreciated. I wanted there to be a real person opposite me, letting me know what he thought, giving me some emotion to work with. I often wondered whether he actually liked me, which I knew was not a question ever to pose to an analyst; it provokes such a tiresome fuss about why you need to know you are liked, when it’s a perfectly ordinary human desire that can be let alone. Still, it made it all the more surprising when I wanted to leave therapy and he was dead set against it.

He was not my first therapist. The first was a woman in her 50s, a gentle, fluffy sort of person who always dressed nicely in soft, expensive-looking fabrics. She had a hesitant manner of speaking that I was put off by, until I realised it was a typical therapy voice, one that writes into every word a great deal of de-energised flexibility so as never to get in the way of the client’s feelings. I came to therapy because I had not recovered from an awful illness I’d suffered two years ago, and now, with a new job as a lecturer and a five-year-old child, I really didn’t know which way to turn. I felt I’d been run over by a truck. And then crawled to my feet to be run over by a truck coming from a different direction. And then… well, you get the idea. I was also very interested in therapy. All my research had been into questions of identity and I had read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory. This made me a difficult client, I knew, over-informed and too self-aware. But I didn’t think of therapy as an admission of failure – I thought it was something everyone should do, given the chance.

I was under the illusion, however, that its purpose was some sort of acceptable chastisement: I had lost all grasp of myself, after that series of overwhelming life changes, and I was afraid I was to blame; someone else would have relished the challenges of my life while I was mostly exhausted and alarmed by them. I felt that my inability to recover from the illness was in some way my own fault; and as such I was making the mistake (much encouraged by society) of confusing illness with moral weakness. I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.

I grew very fond of my first therapist, who was warmly and tenderly supportive. And it was a relief to have an hour a week that was about me, when the rest of my life was jam-packed with dedicated service to others. This was something else I felt I should manage without a qualm and any resentment on my part was a selfish inconvenience. So I did my best to take it well when my therapist told me she was moving to Australia to be with her sick sister. Surely I’d had enough therapy to set me on the right path now?

Well, eighteen months later I started therapy again. I now had a demanding contract with the university as well as with college. My health was still bad and I was in the thick of pretending that it wasn’t. But unable to keep up that pretence at home, my marriage was in difficulties after the sheer strain of the past few years. I didn’t think we’d make it. My career success was balanced on a knife edge with looming personal disaster, and I seemed to have nowhere to put my burdens down. It was at this point that I began work with the therapist who would mean the most to me. He was a funny-looking man, tall and thin, all teeth and glasses with a wild corona of brown hair that danced around a bald spot like a monk’s tonsure. The first time I met him and poured out my tale of woe, he managed to make me laugh about it within the first five minutes. I have always been a sucker for anyone who makes me laugh and my sense of humour was the one thing that felt strong enough to hold me together. I loved the way he would talk so clearly and forcefully to me, his words a firm bridge on which to walk across the chasm between what I wanted and what I thought I ought to want. I felt safe with him, I suppose. And when I least expected it, I fell into transference, which I’d read all about, only the reality was very different to the theory.

Transference is a fancy name for what inevitably happens when you tell your troubles to someone who really gets you. But it’s undercut by the artificiality of the relationship, the cheque at the end of each session. He got me through a very difficult time and I was beholden to him, but I knew we were not united in any meaningful way. My mind loved him, but I suppose my heart didn’t. Or perhaps it was the other way round, these things are hard to judge. In any case, when he told me he was giving up counselling (he’d had a bad break up with his wife and felt it was affecting his ability to help others) I found I had tears falling silently down my face. I was astounded; I’d given up crying at that point in my life because it took more energy than I possessed. Then, astonishing myself again, I walked out of the session and never went back. It did feel like a love affair of sorts had ended.

So by the time I began work with my third and final therapist, several of the plates I’d been spinning so diligently on the end of their long sticks had fallen. I was off work sick, and had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue. But my marriage had not split up and we were working on it. I also had a chance now to be with my son much more, and that felt right. At best I could say I had chosen my family over my career, but I was very angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to have it all. Therapy felt like picking over the aftermath of a tremendous battle, and this therapist was a somber, serious man and our sessions had a melancholy tone. In a sense this was appropriate as I was mourning the loss of my ideal self. Though when I looked at that ideal, and the standards I’d held for her, and the sheer number of boxes I’d had to tick even to meet my minimum requirements, I could see why she hadn’t been feasible. For the first time, my life was quiet enough for me to actually focus on myself, and I made by far the most progress now. Though I knew I was holding myself back, having been the kiss of death to two therapists already. He often said to me, ‘I’m not going anywhere, you know.’ But one day he also said, ‘I do worry that I’m just not a warm enough person for you,’ and I knew there was truth in that.

Therapy is a strange thing; you bring your deepest feelings up to the surface and magnify them, so you can see what’s really going on, but once there they tend to look disproportionately large and take up too much oxygen. When I knew I wanted to leave, I had the mantra running round and round in my head: ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ In a sense it had taken all those years for me to reach this point – where I recognised that failing to be perfect in every way was not a desperate flaw in my character, but the result of normal, human limitations. And therapy was only adding to my sense of being someone who needed to be fixed and brought in line with ‘normal’ people. I’d felt so ashamed of myself for being ill, and now it was time to draw a line under that kind of thinking. It was time to live the way I wanted to, which was admittedly an unusual way. But now I had my longed-for wide margins to the day, the peacefulness I’d craved, and I could not let that go. As my third therapist so often used to say: ‘if you let others down you feel guilty, but if you betray yourself you feel desperate.’ He wouldn’t be so keen on that thought when it was his own wishes I was contravening. But I did leave therapy; I was all talked out.

It was so funny to have seen him unexpectedly like that, and to think of all that had passed between us. It was odd to think of all the recent changes to my life, and to know he was in ignorance of them. But I didn’t feel any regret for my decision to leave. I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn.

It’s A New Year, Again

Happy New Year, dear blogging friends!  I didn’t intend to take quite such a long blogging break, but just as Christmas was feeling properly passed, I fell ill with, well, I would call it vertigo, but Mr Litlove says you can only get that standing on the edge of a precipice. So I had a dizzy-headed thing that was very annoying because it got in the way of the orgy of reading I had planned with my new Christmas books. And it got in the way of blogging, of course. As you can see, I am much improved, as I could not have tolerated looking at a line of print a few days ago, but my head is still somewhat tender, so this won’t be a long post.

But I did want to talk about New Years Resolutions. I don’t always have them, but when something seems obviously ripe for change, I like the idea of having them, even if I can’t always follow through. This year in particular will be somewhat experimental as I’m not sure I can find the right strategies for change, or if change is actually possible. The dizzy-headed thing was a good example of the way I burn my brain out quite regularly, and I need to find ways to rest it more effectively. I have a very chatty and hyper brain that simply will not shut up, and it is never more exercised than when there are people around for whom I feel responsible. So Christmas is classic burnout time – not, I hasten to add because I am actually responsible for the people around me now, but I still feel it, in an impotent and pointless sort of way.

So, for instance, yesterday was a good case in point. I was in bed still, listening to Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool on audio book (it’s very good) and Mr Litlove was sitting on the bed reading Robert Harris’ take on the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy (which he has been absolutely super-glued to), when I heard the cat come running along the landing, into our room, where he jumped up on the bed. I instantly saw he had dirty hind quarters and something long and trailing protruding from his backside. Fortunately, Mr Litlove was right on it and scooped him up and took him downstairs (to much feline protesting). I cravenly counted to a hundred and then followed them down to see what had happened. It turned out to be a long, thin string of plastic that we can only presume he had eaten. Our cat does have a thing for plastic, despite the fact that we are all trained in the rapid response technique that means he is instantly removed from the vicinity of any plastic packaging. But who knows what he does on the quiet? Well, I think we have proof positive, should we ever have required it, that he does not poop rainbows, whatever he tries to tell us. By the time I rejoined the action, Harvey was wearing the offended look of a cat who has been doused with cold water and he spent the rest of the evening with his nose pressed against the study door, shut in the kitchen for sins he evidently found incomprehensible.

But the evening seemed to take a bit of a down turn from that point. Mr Litlove, who only yesterday had declared he felt Tigger-ishly bouncy again after fighting off a cold over Christmas, started to wonder if his cold was coming back. He spent the rest of the evening with the long face of a man condemned to return to work in the morning after ten lovely days of holiday. And our son, who has generally the sweetest and most even temper practically snarled at me when I tapped on his knee to give him an apple. Though in all honesty, he was probably involved in an online game at that point and I was caught in the crossfire of a reaction that was directed at something else entirely. See, my point here, really (and you could be forgiven for thinking we were never going to get to it) is that none of these things are in any way strange, serious or unusual. It’s all just ordinary life stuff. But I seem to notice everything, every little shift and nuance, and it bothers me. I begin to wonder whether I should do something. And I wonder whether I should have done something earlier. I wonder whether my loved ones are happy, and wish that they were. What usually happens is by some weird act of contagion I feel miserable for them and they then cheer up no end. And all the time this is happening, I am thinking, Litlove, this is THE most tremendous waste of emotional energy, time and thought and you know that, right?

So somehow, 2014 has to be the year where I Let Them Get On With It. This year is about reinforcing the bubble. It’s about trying to find ways not to let the moods, desires and caprices of other people get to me so much. How does one go about doing this? I have absolutely no idea. I was determined just to let yesterday evening wash over me, and yet when Mr Litlove came up to bed I found myself saying: ‘What made you so grumpy?’ And Mr Litlove replied, ‘Was I grumpy? Did I seem grumpy? I didn’t think I was grumpy!’ said somewhat grumpily, of course, and I thought to myself: let that be a lesson to you, my girl. This is a good and necessary resolution and you had best learn how to stick with it. Or at least, there’s another 364 days ahead in which to fail better.

Other resolutions are much easier because they seem more within my control. I’m not making any reading resolutions because I never stick to them. But I am going to dedicate a part of this blog to chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety. I’ll be collecting all previous posts on those topics together under a menu bar and writing some new essays. I really hope that it might offer some sort of a resource to other people in the same boat. In terms of writing, I hope to be working steadily across the year on my latest book, which involves a fair amount of research and will certainly not be finished in 2014. Hence the desire to keep my energy more contained and focused and to avoid brain burnout. Oh and this is also going to be the year of tai chi. I have found a local group that actually meets in the morning and is not for the disabled or elderly – result! Classes start on 30th January and doubtless you will hear more about them in due course.

So a very happy New Year to you all and may it be a peaceful and productive one for all of us. If you have resolutions you want to make, do share them here and we’ll make a pledge to stick with them – nothing like confessing in public to strengthen one’s resolve and all that.