Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

 

Medical Misadventures

On Friday, Mr Litlove fell off his bike on his journey to work. He was rounding a corner when the bike slowly slipped from under him, and it wasn’t until he was on the ground that he saw the sheet ice. A couple of builders working nearby came over to check on him, but by then Mr Litlove was back on his feet and brushing himself down and being thankful he hadn’t broken any bones. He’d bruised his ribs and his hip, though, and when he limped in on Friday evening after work, he was clearly a man who had sustained injury and wanted some sympathy. Need I say more?

‘So you won’t be going rowing in the morning, then?’ I asked him.

Mr Litlove’s eyes slid away from mine. ‘I expect I’ll be fine,’ he said.

And so of course, the stubbornness of the male being unparalleled, he was up at 6 am and off to the river. And then we went out to lunch, so it’s possible that he overdid things a tad because by Sunday he was very stiff and sore indeed.

I was expecting a skype call with our son that morning. He has an essay paper to do this year and I offered to lend a hand, given that he’s not written one in several years. The topic is science communication, which turns out to be rather fascinating. It’s a jolly good idea for the public to have some notion of what science is up to, but as with all these vague mission statements, things become tricky when we actually get down to nuts and bolts. How much information do we need to have any sort of useful judgement about current developments in science and technology? Who needs to know? And who is going to tell us in the ‘right’ way? When scientists talk about public understanding, what they often mean is public appreciation – getting the power of mass influence behind their research in order to secure more funding. Whereas what often happens is panic or aversion thanks to sensationalist and inaccurate media stories.

Let me give you a little example of some of the issues involved. Back in the 1950s a medical researcher, Alice Stewart, started to collate the figures on infant deaths by leukemia in women who had been x-rayed during pregancy. The statistics spoke for themselves; up to a child a week was dying from the disease and the mortality rate was almost 40% higher in children whose mothers had been x-rayed. Stewart published her findings in the Lancet in ’56, in the British Medical Journal in ’58 and yet the Medical Research Council absolutely refused to accept her conclusions. Stewart was a lone female voice without the backing of a large organisation. Doctors were in love with the technology, which they believed could only be useful. They were unwilling to take any one else’s word on a problem they had not identified themselves – the more authority at stake, the more unwilling people are generally to admit mistakes. And finally, they believed that as doctors they were always healing people; they simply could not hear the opposite. Too many cherished assumptions needed to be overturned and so for the next 25 YEARS doctors continued with the x-rays, and thousands of children died.

Science needs to be in the public eye, because keen public observation keeps people more honest. And the general public is a useful moral barometer, reacting strongly when science moves into territories where ethical issues are complex. But then we have to think about the scares over the MMR vaccine, which were sparked by one set of results that have since been called into question. The real problem is in the calculation of risk, which we are not encouraged by the media to do with any pragmatism. And anyhow, when our health or that of loved ones is at stake, it’s hard to be cool-headed.

I have an interesting calculation of risk of my own underway at the moment. Last week an invitation from the NHS popped through my letterbox to attend a cervical smear test. Oh joy. It’s not the test itself that bothers me, it’s the inaccuracy of the results. One in twenty women screened will register a false positive and have to go through an unpleasant medical procedure in consequence. One in twenty is a lot. On any given day, assuming a 50/50 gender split, ten women will read this blog who have been scared and treated invasively for no reason at all. I’m tending to agree with Germaine Greer on this one.

I readily confess that I am not good with medical procedures – a touch phobic, for sure. And I am terrified by the prospect of falling ill again, having so recently regained (most of) my health from the worst of chronic fatigue. Am I sensible about this? No, of course not. I had a bad viral illness and it took me 13 years to get over it. How could I possibly be sensible after that? But I know for sure that the stress and anxiety over the test and a false positive result would result in another stretch of chronic fatigue for me. More months lost to illness, when I’ve lost too many already.

Don’t worry; I am the least reckless person you’ll ever meet and I daresay I’ll go and talk it through with my nice doctor. But I have a little fable involving Mr Litlove to tell you about. When I expressed my displeasure at the arrival of the summons, Mr Litlove sighed and clearly wanted to say something he thought better of.

‘You think I should go and have it, don’t you?’ I asked.

‘Well yes, I suppose you should just get it over with,’ he replied.

‘You men should try it once in a while. Some sort of unpleasant, embarrassing test with an uncertain outcome. Something that involves shaving your balls and having them weighed or some such. How many men would do that?’

‘Oh don’t make me laugh,’ said Mr Litlove, clutching his sore ribs. ‘Please don’t. It hurts.’

‘And that reminds me. If those ribs are no better on Monday morning, you should go to the hospital and get an x-ray.’

The look on his face was transparent. It said: NO WAY.

‘Casualty won’t be too bad on Monday morning, I expect.’

‘My sister’s coming to stay on Monday,’ Mr Litlove mumbled. ‘I’ll ask her.’

Back in the day his sister was a GP and now works in academia in public health, none of which to my knowledge has gifted her with x-ray vision. But this is typical. He’ll tell me soon enough what to do, but he’d rather walk around with cracked ribs than go to a doctor. What has understanding science got to do with our behavioural choices, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

The Consequences of Wild Nights

Well this all began last Thursday night, when Mr Litlove went out on the tiles in London with his old school buddies. A great time was had by all, and naturally Mr Litlove was home rather late. I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible to go to sleep whilst waiting for one of the home party to get in, and in any case I had news. In fact, due to the miracle that is the smartphone, Mr Litlove knew it already and it was equally the first thing he told me once he stepped across the threshold: his grandmother was slowly fading.

This is undeniably sad, but his grandmother had enjoyed 96 years of splendid life and was already anticipating the ‘great reunion’ that she believed lay ahead of her. This should tell you something about the wonderful spirit which had kept her buoyantly alive for so long. In her shoes, I’d be calculating my chances of landing in some celestial dormitory with a bunch of people I’d hoped never to clap eyes on again. So anyway, we chewed this over for a while and finally got to bed in the small hours. Mr Litlove was restless in the night – apparently there’s nothing like a lavish meal for making you hungry a few hours later – and so by the time we reached morning, we all felt a bit the worse for wear.

During the day and into that Friday night we were experiencing the wild winds that had plagued the rest of the country. We lay in bed listening to them buffeting the sides of the house and howling through the trees. This is becoming a regular occurrence at this time of year: the year before last we had our television aerial fixed; last year we rebuilt the garden fence with steel posts inside it, and so we went to sleep joking about having a good night – there was surely nothing left to fall over or fly loose. And so we were quite unprepared when the phone began ringing at some ungodly hour.

My first thought was that surely my mother-in-law wasn’t ringing us to say that Mr Litlove’s grandmother had died? Surely she wouldn’t have told us now? Years ago when I was pregnant with our son and Mr Litlove was working away half the week in Leicester, his car had been stolen, joy ridden, and left to burn. For some reason, the police rang my mother-in-law in the small hours, who utterly forbade them from contacting me and risking some measure of shock. Instead I heard the news mid-morning from Mr Litlove, who had spent a long time trawling the streets in his vicinity wondering how come he couldn’t seem to recall where he’d parked his car – until the police finally caught up with him.

Mr Litlove was obviously having some trouble wading to the shores of consciousness and reaching the phone that is on his side of the bed. When he got there I heard him groan and start stabbing at the buttons on the phone. It was a recorded message from the company that runs the security system at his office, alerting him to a possible intruder. Except of course, the security system is hopelessly neurotic and rings us reguarly in heavy rain, or thunder and lightning, or sometimes for no obvious reason at all. The wind shrieked outside and Mr Litlove returned to bed. About fifteen minutes later, his office mobile phone started ringing; the next link in the security chain. When this happened for the third time towards 3am, expletives were exchanged. I’m sure experiments in torture have been conducted along similar lines. Mr Litlove had to get up at 6am to go rowing, and he said that by then he was quite glad. I had fallen asleep towards dawn and woke with that drugged feeling you get when your deep sleep comes too little too late.

When Mr Litlove returned from rowing, we regarded one another blearily.

‘Let’s do nothing today,’ I suggested.

‘I’ve got to take the cat to the vet,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘Then that’s it for me.’

The cat. Whom I find harder to love as he gets older. Imagine a querulous and demanding elderly relative who gazes with worshipful eyes on the master of the house and treats you like a servant girl on a Mississipi plantation: this is our current ménage à trois. Well, over Christmas I had noticed that Harvey seemed to be scratching more than usual. He has allergies (to what we are not sure) that we usually notice as small granular lumps in his fur. Even though he was already taking his steroids, this was one gritty cat we had on our hands. Worse, the relentless licking made him smell truly revolting. I thought he should go to the vet, but Mr Litlove did not. He thought the grit was scabbing and that the steroids were doing their work. By the end of the second holiday week, he was changing his mind, and then finally he had booked an appointment.

When he returned from the vet he rushed in saying: ‘You were right. You were right. You were right,’ without any provocation. This alarming use of the most conciliatory card in the marital deck made me realise I would not like what was coming.

‘It’s good news and bad news,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘He’s got fleas.’

‘How can he possibly have fleas?’ I asked, instantly feeling itchy.

It turns out that our village is the epicentre for an outbreak of Darwinian fleas who have learned to embrace central heating and resist certain kinds of flea repellent. We have been through fleas once before, 20 years ago in fact, when we were living in the cottage with our previous cat, Boris. I had a vivid image of Mr Litlove’s bare feet on the carpet with a sort of haze in the air around them, which on closer inspection turned out to be a zillion insects leaping for joy at the sight of human transportation. Fleas are awful. They are to soft furnishings what a nuclear accident is to the surrounding landscape. Endless attempts at clear-up operations in the awareness that the extent of the damage will only become apparent many months later. And this is to say nothing of the political fallout.

I looked at the cat, who did not wish to meet my eye and account for the company he had been keeping. I looked at my husband, who did not wish to meet my eye and account for the extra ten days of flea-egg-shedding that our cat had used to the max. Instead, we began on the housework, vacuuming and spraying every surface the cat had covered, washing all our linen and the clothes we’d been wearing over the past few weeks. I went out to buy some new pillows and pillowcases and when I returned, my mother-in-law had rung to say that Mr Litlove’s grandmother had indeed passed over during the night while our phones had rung so futilely. It was a little spooky.

I wondered what the good news was that Mr Litlove had brought back from the vet? I think he believed the good news was learning I’d been right (while under the circumstances….) but we do now have a cleaner house than usual, and I like to think of Mr Litlove’s grandmother enjoying her triumphant reunion with her husband, with her eldest son, with her parents and her brothers and sisters, with her many friends, and the full unbroken night’s sleep we had last night was wonderful.