When I first started working in the bookstore, I had the strange sensation of turning the clock back to pre-marriage, pre-motherhood days. Time has caught up with me of late, however, as the impact of additional hours out of my schedule has begun to make itself felt. I am behind on everything, and I owe a big apology to all the people who are waiting to hear from me by email. It’s just that life has been excessively busy (by my standards at least), what with a large number of hours spent recently on university business, and visits to and from people. I’m feeling really tired, because I’m used to having what Thoreau termed ‘wide margins’ to my day, times to process and reflect and simmer down; without them, life suffers from a sort of pixillated effect, all speeded up jump cuts from one thing to the next.
But the bookstore is a lot of fun. I’ve worked three sessions there now, and have settled into a regular Monday slot. We are busier than I’d imagined we might be, although as always the customers come in batches, with stretches of empty, dreaming space between. It’s quite rare, though that the shop is without someone browsing the shelves. The first hurdle was the till, which looked a formidable opponent when I first arrived. The cash drawer shoots out unexpectedly fast and can catch you a swift blow to the ribs if you’re not careful, and I dread the day that the float runs out when I’m the only staff in sight and the extra cash is kept in a safe place somewhere else altogether. I’m still at the stage when I don’t know the answers to customer questions. Do we have a political theory section? Do we? I’ve no idea. Why hasn’t a poster advertising a local musical event been displayed? It was a very handsome young man asking that question, so I didn’t mind in the least chewing the problem over with him, although I’d no idea what the real answer was. But I’ve moved swiftly back into customer service mode, like I was never away, and I can clean and mark up a second-hand book and shelve it more or less correctly, so I’m learning.
The best bit is working with my manager again. She is so lovely and funny and the focal point of the store. All the volunteers gravitate around her, like little satellites, and when they’re not working, they walk past and wave in the window at her. Next week I’m alone in the store because she’ll be on holiday – help! The window cleaner might turn up, apparently, and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do if he does, and the recycling man, who may be alarming because he looks like a Viking and has a tendency to stride purposefully towards the back of the shop without stating his business. Okay, well, I’ll recognise him if he turns up, at least. When books are too old or scruffy to be sold, they get sent out back to The Hut for recycling, which also brings us a little money. Getting out the back gate with the recycling involves the most complicated arrangement of keys and bolts, however, that I’ve ever seen. Can I recall now the sequence involved to unlock them all? Ummm….
It’s funny that this lack of knowledge bothers me far more now than it did when I was twenty and learning the ropes of a new job. In fact, I can’t remember ever being fazed back then by something I couldn’t do. I just figured I’d figure it out. Sometimes when I’m in the shop, and it’s quiet, and I’m just sitting on the stool by the till holding the fort, I can feel the quiet vibrations of my nerves. This is the problem for anyone who’s had a long term illness – it really undermines your confidence in your ability just to be. I’m not sure what’s normal any more – is it normal to be anxious about a new job that’s basically very easy? Is it normal to feel tired after doing something new?
But this brings me to something rather fascinating I was reading about in psychotherapist Neville Symington’s The Analytic Experience: Lectures From The Tavistock, about the reluctance we feel in learning from experience. He recounts an anecdote about a group of prisoners he began working with. When offered their files, he declined, saying he’d rather find out about them in the group meetings. When he attended the meeting, the prisoners wanted to know if he’d read their files. At first he wouldn’t say, but when they pressed him for an answer and he admitted he hadn’t, they were up in arms. He clearly wasn’t serious about his job! They didn’t want to have to tell him things that were all explained in the files. They simply couldn’t believe that they would be knowable, or understandable, just as they were, in the moment. Symington tells another story, about a female client who kept asking him lots of questions. When he turned the questions back on her, asking her what she felt about them, she always came up with answers, but they would be preceded by her sighing and saying, did she really have to? Going through the process of working out an answer didn’t appeal at all.
The issue Symington is interested in, like most psychotherapists, is how do we become ourselves? How do we ever find out who we really are? And he looks at this question through the lens of these stories, and the theories of Wilfred Bion. Bion was interested in what he called alpha functioning, which is a basic form of creativity, whereby we come to process ideas and feelings and events and stimuli to the point where we fully possess them inside ourselves. What we take in from the outside world, and what we experience, if we don’t do anything with it but just store it undigested, remains what Bion termed ‘beta elements’. If someone explodes in an outburst of rage or tears over you, you’ll have experienced raw beta elements. If you’ve sat listening to a lecture or a presentation and been really confused about what the person talking is trying to say, you’re listening to beta elements. If that angry person had stated firmly and clearly the source of their upset, then you’d be witnessing the results of alpha functioning. If the lecture had been clear and insightful and given you a startling new perspective, then you’d be the recipient of that alpha functioning. But to get that alpha function to work, we have to sit still and quiet and concentrated on what has happened to us. We have to be open to not knowing in advance what we think and feel, but to listen out instead to what we really think and feel.
Bion’s point was that we are all inclined to reach out for ready-made thoughts and responses, rather than organically develop our own. Our minds are full of images of how people should behave, how they should react, how they ought to be, images that come from stories, of course, but also from the pervading cultural climate, and from family narratives. We spend far more time trying to bend ourselves out of shape to fit these patterns, than we do actually listening to the small inner voice of experience. I know I struggle with alpha functioning because I have so many pre-existing concepts and standards for myself and I don’t think it’s permissible to go along with how I feel in an unjustified sort of way. And I can see how tempting it is not to pay attention to how I feel now, but to try to force myself into the shape of the person I was when I was last in a bookstore. There’s a ready-made identity calling me, if ever I saw one. Thanks to Symington’s brilliant lecture, I realise I need to find some time and space to process my experiences and see what I really feel about them, this time around.