Thoughts On Change

It’s been very quiet in my corner of blogland lately and I’m trying not to let this have an impact on my blogging. I remember that the same thing happened last year, and the year before that, and that blogging has notable seasonal variations. Once the weather picks up lots of people have an outdoors life to attend to. Plus, a lot of my particular blogging friends are busy with life events; three have recently had babies (which I recall makes it hard even to get food in the fridge, let alone find time to blog), several others are busy with demanding courses or writing books or similar projects, and many more just don’t blog as regularly these days as they used to. That’s the problem with an elderly blog like this one, which had its fifth birthday at the start of the month. It’s my natural state of mind to stick with the people I know through thick and thin rather than exploring the blogworld to find new friends (although it’s a pleasure to make a new friend when it happens). And I admit I am a dreadful blog housekeeper, and often forget to add new links to my blogroll and then can’t remember who I wanted to visit. I really ought to embrace more outward movement, though, as I hate the feeling of talking to myself.

I could take a blogging break but I don’t want to, partly because my reading has been so interesting (to me) recently, and partly because I am finally feeling much better than I have done in years. A few weeks back I was writing about a period of intense anxiety I was experiencing. My doctor gave me some anti-anxiety medication that I was very unwilling to take, having a prejudice against pills because they deal only with symptoms rather than cause and often bring a lot of side effects. Well, I will have to reconsider that prejudice now, as finally taking a low dose of the medicine has been a revelation to me. I can’t get over how different life feels without the background of constant anxiety that threatens to shoot off into the stratosphere at any moment. One thing I notice particularly is how easy it is to be curious about certain problems and issues now. It strikes me as one of life’s great paradoxes that anxiety collects around the issues that we most need to explore, preventing us from getting anywhere near them.

I’ve long been intrigued as to why we persist in behaviours that do us no good, and thought patterns that reinforce damaging or unskilful beliefs. It’s clear to me now that anxiety wards us off change and experimentation; but why should that be? I guess a possible explanation is that change always looks bad to the lizard brain, where the oldest and fiercest beliefs accumulate; a primitive part of us thinks that anything is better that altering behaviours and responses that we have actually outgrown. And equally, as I know to my own cost, transition periods are just dreadful. You can read all the self-help advice you like about using them to test out new things and try on alternative attitudes like you were having a lovely rummage through the Harrods sale, but in reality, all one really feels is destabilized, adrift and bewildered.

I think it’s hard for us to accept quite how much we dislike change, because we need to hold onto it as an abstract ideal. Plus it’s hard to realise how much we have invested emotionally, and often morally, in our settled patterns. So, for instance, let’s take something completely innocuous, like the way I read, which I notice has been changing despite my attempts to continue in the old routines. When I began blogging I was deeply involved in teaching literature to university students. I was set up to transform what I read into a series of lessons – about how literature creates its effects, about the development of literary history, about the interaction of readerly expectations with a story and about the creative interchange between life and its written equivalent. It was what I did, and I liked doing it. But it fell into a broader mental attitude that I held, which told me I had to find value and meaning in everything I did, and then make something out of that to give to other people. It wasn’t a choice so much as a moral compulsion. I felt I wasn’t earning my oxygen quota if I wasn’t producing something that other people could gain benefit from.

Dislodging this old attitude has been like loosing baby teeth. First it wobbled in its setting, and wobbled for a long, long time. Then it became loose and awkward and uncomfortable. Then it was held on by one last, painful nerve ending that neither I nor anyone else could really bear to look at. And then suddenly it was gone and I never noticed the end.

It’s been six years since I was teaching literature and I have no mental image of how it’s done. Although there was a moment, last term, when I did see a student for a literature supervision and I had the strangest sensation of recall that was bodily rather than mental; I shifted a gear somewhere inside and moved seamlessly into teaching mode. But I can only do that with a student in front of me. Now my reading is selfish and creative. I had this glorious afternoon last weekend when I was dipping into lots of different books. I read a fascinating short story by Maupassant, about a woman who was furious with her husband; he had managed his intense jealousy of her beauty by forcing her into a series of pregnancies, and so to gain her revenge she told him that one child was not his, but refused to tell him which. This story turned out to be a frame for a strange discussion between two characters in which one suggested that beauty and art were a kind of loophole in the universe, an unintended benefit in a world set up by god for animals. Then I read another short story from a brilliant collection by Michelle Latiolais, in which a woman was taken to a lap dancing club by her partner and was aware of what a different atmosphere there was when the men danced for the women; a tender, indulgent sort of atmosphere that made her think of the bonds of maternity. This story was also a frame for the report of a crime committed by an American woman who had drowned all five of her children in the bath. And then I went on to read about the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H, Lawrence, and how the jury had to decide whether it would incite corrupt or depraved behaviour.

Oh I loved all this, all the sparky links between the stories and the sense of a theme developed and fragmented into all kinds of variations. I can’t tell you what it all meant, though, I can’t transform it into blogging fodder. And I feel bad about this, guilty in fact, and uncertain how best to talk about books. I still feel the book review + teaching point is my basic blogging unit, even though those posts get the least interest (due in part to what seems like a recent sensitivity about spoilers, I think). Perhaps it’s just as well if things are quiet around here until I get a better sense of what form a blog post most usefully takes because I do love conversation about books and what they do, and that’s really what I want my blogging to provide for me.

28 thoughts on “Thoughts On Change

  1. It is wonderful to hear that you are feeling better and that your anxiety is receding! Would you say you are reading more and more for the sheer pleasure of it? I look forward to following you as you discover how best to talk about books. And thanks for the reminder about how blogworld gets quiet this time of year. I had noticed but failed to remember.

  2. I always read your book posts with great interest, but I don’t always comment. I don’t mind the “spoiler” aspect of things…and I’ve actually never found that to be true, when I’ve read a book after reading about your experience of it.

    I’m so glad that the medication is helping. And it’s amazing, isn’t it, how you realize the level of exhaustion and misery you were actually enduring, once you’re back a step from it? And you wonder how in the world you ever put up with it…and realize you’re about ten million times stronger than you ever gave yourself credit for. And then…ah, the other things you could do with that strength…it’s almost scary. And that, I think,is part of what keeps us stuck. What if we turn out to be someone entirely different than who we thought we were? How does that negate or recontextualize our entire lives? It is very difficult not to constrain the future by pre-emptively defining it in terms of the past…most of us are very attached to the story of our past, and if our future is something very different, it’s hard to assimilate.

  3. Speaking as an often silent reader of your blog, and always an admirer of your erudite posts, I empathise with the feeling of talking to oneself. I find book reviews get less attention than discussion posts and I suspect this is because others, like myself, will only comment on a book they have actually read.

    Don’t give up, but remember that this blog is for you, and you can run it in any way you choose.

  4. I love this post. Being in the midst of a horrible transition period in my work life right now, I very much relate to that resistance to, and hatred of, change, even when the end result promises to pay off. And that’s such good news that your anxiety problems are lessening!

  5. great and very inspiring to hear of your feelings as you approach five years as a book blogger-I would like to read the Du Mauspassant story you mentioned and wonder if you would mind post the name of the story?-thanks

  6. I do tend to notice unaccountable blog slowdowns, both in the number of comments I receive on posts and how many comments I feel like giving. Lately I’ve not been in much of a commenting mood, even though I’ve been reading blogs as much as usual. I say write your posts in a way that gives you pleasure and feels interesting to you. I enjoy your writing enough that I’m sure I’ll keep reading regardless.

    Your thoughts about change are so interesting to me because I tend to be a person who likes change. I do have my little habits and routines that I don’t like to alter, but I get bored easily and sometimes itch to move on from a job, home, church, whatever, after a few years–and I do love the process of getting to know a new place/situation. But then maybe that itch to move on is itself an entrenched mental habit.

  7. I’ve always had a horrible aversion to change – I get so anxious about it, I become totally paralyzed and then can’t cope at all, which makes the whole process all the worse.

    But I’ve recently made some changes in my life – totally voluntarily, I might add – and it’s made me realize something. Because I’ve always been so afraid of change, I’ve never initiated it, so the changes in my life have generally been forced on me by life and/or circumstance. But when you actually initiate the change yourself – well, then it’s ever so much more exciting. Certainly common sense, I suppose, but it took silly me over 50 years to figure it out!

    I’m glad to hear the medication has worked for you, and that you’re able to relax and enjoy life (and reading!) in different and better ways!

  8. I don’t know. This post looked like great blogging fodder. I am thrilled that you finally caved into the medication. It took me years to accept medication, too, and I’m a therapist. I think it’s a mistake to think of the medication as only treating the symptom and not the root of the problem. We are composed of chemicals. Some of us are born with more revved up nervous systems than others, and constantly live on the edge of fight or flight for no logical reason. The meds work whether the initial cause was biochemical or social, because our social experiences also alter the chemicals in our brain. Once your brain has become conditioned to anxiety, it is often impossible to break the pattern without giving yourself an “artificial” break. And yes, we are conditioned to avoid and run the other way from anything that heightens anxiety which is also a great reason to use medication to hasten the insight process. I love your blog, your reading adventures and your descriptions of your emotional life.

  9. So happy to hear that medication is helping you! I’ve been on a blogging break that just sort of happened because it’s springtime, and my kids are busy, and life got in the way. Easing back in, so it was really nice to check in with you and see this lovely post!

  10. I’m glad to hear that you’re getting better. We can all benefit from your stamina and insights from your posts. Come to think of it, mine’s a relatively old blog too, my fourth ‘blogaversary’ this month. And speaking of changes, I must say, blogging has totally changed me! I’d like to put it in a more glamorous way, I’ve been ‘re-inventing’ myself through blogging, and it works. I look forward to more book and lit talk from you, and wish you all the best in maintaining your health and this wonderful website!

  11. That’s great news re the meds. And so true about anxiety.

    I’m always interested in what you’re reading and what you think about them. My own blogging seems to be hanging by a thread (and yet ironically my family still complains that I reveal too much) but I still very much enjoy exchanging ideas about books and life and everything else with friends like you.

  12. I’m so excited for you that you’re feeling better than you have done in a while and that the medication is bringing you benefits. People do seem to talk about medication like this just as you said, as a treatment for symptoms not causes. They almost make it sound like a kind of emotional pain relief that could potentially make you hurt yourself even more without even realising it, which I think puts people off what could with control really help.

    I’m one of those struggling to blog as regularly at the moment (although that might be partly due to a new joint blogging project which I haven’t mentioned yet). To be honest I feel dead guilty at the moment if I’m not out in the sun instead of in front of the lap top and am even keeping away from the tv at the weekend in favour of a book, or an outing. I’m working on getting a lot of blog writing done in advance now though, as I can stay up much later over the long weekends to work on posts (yay no work tomorrow) and can then pre-schedule some reviews.

    As for you writing, well I love everything you do whether you’re teaching or explaining that you don’t know how to write about something. Your A Team post was so much fun and even though you weren’t setting out to teach about it I got a lot of information (the bit about B A being against all violence was so interesting to learn) and a real feel for you and your family.

    PS Just because I am here I will reply to a bit of your comment at my place today. I have read ‘Girl Meets Boy’. It’s one of my favourite books now and I’ve read it a couple of times. What else have you read from the myths series, besides the Philip Pullman novel? I enjoyed bits of ‘The Penelopiad’, read ‘Binu and the Great Wall’ which had lots of cool magical realism bits, but I couldn’t really get into and am wonderign whether to try the one about Atlas by Jeanette Winterson.

  13. Iam so glad to read you are getting on well.Your blog is my silent companion all these afternoons.
    In my country we are in autumn and the trees are are adelight to look at.Thank you for
    sharing your life withus,amigo.

  14. Great to hear you are feeling better and I think you should write the blog as your experience of it tells you. You are always insightful and informative, but comments will depend on the individual and whether they feel they are in a position to add something useful. I don’t always feel I can even though I always enjoy what you have to say. Often you make me want to read something different or that I’ve never heard of, or think about something differently and I may only think of something to say long after. Keep entertaining and informing us in your own way, whichever way that goes in!

  15. So glad to hear you are feeling much better! That’s just the best news.

    I think it is so true that the world of blogs has its own pace – mine has definitely slowed of late. I think it’s really interesting that you note a change in your blogging style and I’m glad that it includes more freedom for you. However, as a longterm and avid reader, I can assure that the quality of your posts is as strong as ever and I still come away feeling that I’ve learnt something or inspired by the way you knit words together.

    Today it was this: ‘You can read all the self-help advice you like about using them to test out new things and try on alternative attitudes like you were having a lovely rummage through the Harrods sale, but in reality, all one really feels is destabilized, adrift and bewildered.’

  16. I’m glad the meds are helping! And I’m glad you’re not going to go anywhere. Even when I don’t comment, I always love reading your posts, and of course am not put off by spoilers. Spoilers are my favorite! 😀

  17. I’m with Lilian on the “selfish and creative” remark. It’s a lantern held to keep on the most interesting and rewarding road there can be in a human life. All you really have to do, apart from follow the road you find, is to trust us. We’ll be amazed by where ever you take us.

  18. That’s preceisely what I liked about Delerm’s blogger novel which I just reviewed, this questioning whether we should write purely for ourselves and whether it is even possible. Will we not get to self-conscious once we know who is reading us and what they expect? One of the remedies I found is having more than one blog. One for different “moods” or topics. I love exploring new blogs but admittedly blogging interaction does take a lot of time.

  19. Stefanie – you know, I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it: I AM reading more and more for the sheer pleasure of it, and I track my pleasure these days. I used to feel the onus was on me to create it (and that was fun in its way) but now I let pleasure happen to me and it feels like a gift. And thank you for your kind words – it is lovely to feel like a normal person again!

    David – and I am always glad when you comment, particularly on the self-development posts! The difference between life with anxiety and life without it is immeasurable. I keep saying to my husband, is this how you feel all the time? Then there’s no excuse for anything, for not doing what you want to do, for not examining your heart, for not dealing with problems… I suppose it’s really not that simple, though, as anxiety may well feel like something different to other people; numbness, perhaps, or fitful rage. And I complete agree that changing stories midstream, to mix my metaphors, is a scary and psychically challenging business. What I do think now, having been through all this, is that anxiety keeps us away from becoming truly ourselves, and the fear that surrounds this is buried deep in often unconscious beliefs about our basic ‘wrongness’ that comes from early experiences. But that’s the theory of the moment and I’m willing to be persuaded of other possibilities too! Oh and it’s very nice to think you read the bookish posts, too – thank you for letting me know that.

    Yvann – thank you for your lovely comment. It can, I know, be really difficult to know what to say on a review post if you don’t immediately feel a) you want to read the book or b) you’ve already read the book and have an opinion about it. That’s very true.

    Emily – oh my sympathies for your transition at work – that’s a bummer because you often don’t even get a say in how things are changing, just obliged to adapt as best you can. Yick! But I’ll cross my fingers it’s over very soon!

    Mel – of course! The story is the first in a collection called ‘L’Inutile Beaute’ (with an acute accent on the last ‘e’ – don’t know where that is on this keyboard). It may be available in some translated collections of Maupassant’s short stories, you’d have to check the contents. It’s a really good story so I hope you can find it.

    Lilian – lol! Perhaps I should bear it in mind more than I do! 🙂 And I’m a feed reader fan, too. It does make life so much simpler.

    Teresa – well it’s nice to like change – makes life easier in some ways! I think that the real dealbreaker is whether or not we can adapt to necessary change that takes us outside of our comfort zones. Changes on the self-developmental front can be really taxing in surprising ways. I caught my husband out when he read this post and started declaring how much he liked change – I reminded him of how excruciatingly difficult he’d found it to commit to his woodworking course. Only one day a week, but so very different to all the things he’d done before, so outside the coherent picture of himself that he presented, and not particularly valued by his family of origin. He wanted to do it very much, but it took him a long time to come around to it as a real possibility. So I think it all depends on the change, really.

    Becca – I’ve read about some of your changes on your blog and I think they are marvellous – well done to you for finding the courage to do them. And I really hear what you say about choosing to initiate change rather than have it forced upon you. That is such a strong position. I really don’t think change is easy, although as a friend said to me, the very dreadfulness of it is guarantee that something really IS changing, and for that you will eventually be glad.

    Squirrel – you are one of my longest-standing blog friends and I am always so happy to have you here. I am really glad you and the others all pushed me towards the meds because they have been extremely helpful. I’ve been worried about what will happen when I come off them (typical me) although I don’t need to for a while yet. I’m taking heart from your words and hoping that they will alter my reactions a bit. In retrospect I see that I really could not have broken the cycle of anxiety without this intervention as it’s too built into my system to grow anxiety exponentially, and I see how very sensitive my nervous system had become. I’m trying to dive in and tackle everything I can now while I’m feeling better!

  20. Gentle Reader – it is always so lovely to have you visit, but I know how hard it is to get anything done when children are on holiday! And after all, you want to be with them, not staring at a computer screen. The meds have turned out to be really helpful and I’m so glad all my blogging friends encouraged me to give them a go.

    Arti – thank you for such a lovely comment! I completely agree that blogging is transformative, and re-invention is a term I really like. Colette talked about being able to ‘faire peau neuve’, to shed her skin and change, and how valuable and liberating that was. Anything that helps us in that particular quest is a very good thing. I didn’t realise you had been blogging for four years! Congratulations for your anniversary!

    Pete – I know how incredibly busy (and probably tired, too) you must be, so it is always extra special to have you come visit. And I’m very glad you do – I’d miss you! Families have to get used to being blog fodder, I say, but then I am probably more cavalier with mine and Mister Litlove is rather enamoured of his web persona… Love to you and yours and here’s to lots more reading together. 🙂

    Jodie – I am thinking that these weeks of lovely weather we are having ARE going to be summer for 2011, so I don’t blame you for a moment for wanting to be out in it. I’m just hugely impressed that you are writing advance blog posts! I have never managed to do that, despite good intentions! I have always been very chary about meds, because of the side effects, because of how hard it can be to go on them, because of the stigma attached. I had such a difficult time swallowing the first one! And then they have been easy to take (the low dose helps) and frankly, you couldn’t wrestle me off them at the moment. It’s so nice to feel normal. Thank you for such kind words about the blog, and yay! for Ali Smith! The only other Canongate myth book I’ve read is the one by Michel Faber, and of course I cannot remember its title. I remember it was good, though, fast-moving and clever. I would like to read more – I’ll let you know how I get on with them when I do!

    victor – you are such a sweetie. Thank you for your lovely comment.

    Bookboxed – I am always delighted to see you commenting and I think you always have something interesting to say. Although I do know what you mean about thinking of it a while after reading the actual post. There is nothing like turning the computer off for making me think of all the clever things I could have said but didn’t! 🙂 I do really like to think I’m writing FOR someone, though. It just gives me a lift and a direction that power me on.

    Charlotte – you are such a dear friend. I found it very hard to blog last summer when I was spending a lot of time writing other things, and then there have been other periods when the blogging waxed and waned. It does tie in with certain biorhythms that can’t be ignored! You are doing important work right now in so many different ways – it’s lovely to have you drop by when you can.

    Jenny – I love that you love spoilers. One day perhaps I will write a post just for you with all the really good spoilers I can think of. 🙂

    Mary – aww bless you, what a lovely comment. And you really put your finger on something there: trust. I often don’t have enough of that, and certainly not as much as I should.

    Caroline – I didn’t know you had several blogs! How interesting; I will have to check them out. I do like the idea of splitting different types of writing off into different places. That’s such an interesting question posed by Delerm. I feel like I want the security of knowing my audience, but then I also think that I don’t ‘know’ them enough to project anything other than my own anxieties into silence. In fact the more I think about that, the more interesting that question becomes.

  21. Yay for medication! I understand your mistrust of it, most definitely, but it’s wonderful when it really helps a person. As for blogging … I keep thinking of your comment about feeling guilty. If only we both, all of us, could get rid of that feeling of guilt! I suppose we drive ourselves to do good work because of guilt, but I’d love to be a little more selfish and uncaring and have more fun! I’ve tried to post on whatever I want to post on and leave all other thoughts behind, but I know I don’t succeed in that. And what I want to post on changes based on what I think other people are expecting. Blech. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing where your writing takes you!

  22. Belatedly, but perhaps not pointlessly, I just wanted to share with you this line from a (sigh) self-help book I was looking at recently. I found it very reassuring, though of course that may just be because I too find change very difficult rather than because it is true in some essential way: “no one else can tell you what changes you should make, at what speed, and at what cost.”

  23. Pingback: Changes!!! « The Chaotic Mind

  24. Lovely post and one to think on. I am terrible at change but I need to be better or more open to it as otherwise I fear I am simply going to be left behind! I’ve also noticed a certain quietness in my corner of the blog world lately which bothered me at first, but I think you’re right and it is one of those natural lulls. I’m not quite sure lately what I want out of blogging either, so you are not alone! And I’m so happy to hear you are having good results from a low dose med–that must feel like such a great relief! Even if you aren’t sure how you want to write about the books you’re reading it’s great that you are finding so many good ones and so many connections–I’m sure when the time comes to write about them your post will be inspired! 🙂

  25. Dorothy – gah! Guilt! But thank you for the solidarity which I really appreciate! It is so hard sometimes to put the imagined needs and desires of the audience to one side, well, not so imagined as it turns out because the stats tell us. But I admire the way you have been able to blog when it’s right for you and take time away when it isn’t. That’s not easy either, so good on you for that!

    Rohan – oh those are wise words. I always try to hurry along change because it makes me uneasy, and of course it takes the time it takes, and involves as much of one’s emotions and thoughts as is necessary. I still resist this fiercely, and unproductively!

    Danielle – Whenever I’m not sure how to write, I can always console myself with loving my reading! I do appreciate the solidarity you are sending me on change, and it seems that most of us here find it a real challenge (which it is, I think, objectively). Milton Erikson, one of my favourite psychotherapists suggested that we should begin with a change of only 2%. If we could make a tiny change, he was convinced that a domino effect would take place. I’m not always sure that happens, but it gives me an excuse for being able to make only teeny changes at a time! 🙂

  26. Sorry to be coming so late — I have been away — but I wanted to say that I love your bookish posts best of all. You make such wonderful connections, within the book, between books, and between books and life. It makes me want to write about books better myself. I never leave here without wanting to read more, and differently, and better. So thank you.

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