The problem with reflections is, and I am making a wild assumption that I am not alone, is that events immediately prior to the reflection can dominate the scene. There is no way I could reflect on every day, I struggle to write in my gratitude journal more than once a week, and I am a lot more grateful than I am reflective, so a real-time reflection compiled and released on a Monday is not going to happen.
I would love to remember to take reflection notes, but that is a lot like trying to do a reflection, even on a few lines, it is not going to happen, and it would mean either note-taking on my phone which I do not like doing, not sure why this approach doesn’t work but I fail every time I try it. I could carry a notebook, and I in a previous life, that would have been far too embarrassing or drawn too much attention to me. When I first wrote that sentence, I was going to say, I was no more likely to use a notebook than my phone. Somehow the idea of being seen to be playing on my phone is getting less and less attractive. However, the fact is, it is possible, and I have no idea how likely, that I could use a notebook.
I am moving back to pen and paper, very deliberately. I have found that while the smartphone can be an awesome tool, there are definitely limits to that for me. And, perhaps, as importantly, the world around me getting more and more absorbed into their phones, and sucked into social media. Which I love, especially Instagram, where I am a complete addict, and have built up a tremendously positive feed, I am aware that social media ultimately does not go anywhere. Social media is what we make of it, what we bring to it and a tool we can use in certain ways. To me, I share my life because although I am far from exceptional, I set goals and achieve and I hope that someone, will look and see that if I can do it, then they can as well. And to show that success is not about Ferrari’s and mansions, and happiness is not through parties, Rolex watches and hanging out with the coolest people. You can be happy with all of those things, but you can be lonely and desperately unhappy too, and in my experience of the so-called highlife, loneliness, despair and emptiness are much more common and the “life” is the disguise that hides it.
I am not sure which is driving me more, the promised practicality and utility of pen and paper, or the appearance of it. The fact that pen and paper feels and looks like doing, rather than messing about or playing. It is also tempting to quickly “check” and very easy to disengage with the world. Which is something I do not want to do, and I do not want to do to those who I am with. I tend to do my “playing” alone because when I am with people I want to engage with them. It is the lament of the older generation that “kids” have their heads in their phones, but more and more I see, it is people are more engaged with social media than the person they are sat with. I must admit I am guilty of the food shot, but then the phone goes case closed either away or does not get picked up. I will sometimes check a notification but I am ruthless about whether that gets a reply, and not much is that urgent.
Perhaps, too, this is a nostalgia drive, a lamenting of the so called connected age where in reality we are increasing disconnected, interrupted and disengaged. I feel there is a passivity, from the use of video over text, which I feel is much more passive than reading. I learn better from a book than a lecture. Voice works for outlines not for detail with me.
What exactly am I reflecting on here? It is not about pen and paper, that could be symbolic, however, I am thinking about engagement and more specifically disengagement. Specifically, I have become aware that while on the individual level I can enjoy engagement with people, and I have a desire to ensure that I am present in the moment, something I definitely picked up from mindfulness, I am, on a social level, highly disengaged. I am disengaged with wider society, socially because I live an isolated life, largely picking and choosing social settings and interaction chances, but I am isolated on a more socio-political level too. I do not watch popular television programs, I am increasingly not interested in popular music, I do not follow football or have any sort of passion for what are the current mainstream sports, and I am woefully disappointed with the political situation. I would leave the country were it an option, and I cannot bring myself to positively endorse any of those who stand for office. Not only to I look at the political candidates and personnel and feel revulsion, I am saddened by how the population has been so ready to believe the complete and utter rubbish they get fed. More than that, it is the collective readiness, even desire, to hate that leads me to despair. My desire to move is to go somewhere where isolation is easier, not because I believe the move would improve the situation, it would merely trade one set of despair-inducing circumstances for another.
This desire to disengage on the bigger stage is perhaps driving my desire to be more engaged with the individual. It is also a symptom, if symptom is the right word, of my healing. While I want to be isolated from that which I cannot change, I am now much happier at the individual level. My new life has led to new circumstances, positive reinforcement as opposed to the negative force applied previously, and I have found a confidence. With each interaction that has not had “consequences” or “feedback,” I have in very small increments been able to learn that it is not only ok to talk to people, but that it is encouraged, seen as a positive thing to be doing.
Getting used to the positive change in circumstances is taking a long time. Undoing a lifetime of learning is not easy at all. Moving to pen and paper, an insecure way of recording thoughts, a way that can be stolen, abused, that could invite ridicule and mocking was impossible. To carry a pen and the paper would invite suspicion, ridicule, some derision, while playing on my phone was just playing and messing around and so the insults lesser and the price easier to pay. Moving away from a protective behaviour to another is illustrative of how my mind had become locked into protective patterns. The minimising of threat and potential harm was the default setting. In childhood, I learned to protect, defend, and minimise potential harm. I learned that planning for the worst was always the best option and that hoping for the best was unfounded optimism. The key moving forward is to take the positive forward, the planning and preparation, and to leave behind the negative such as pessimism. Moving to pen and paper, going back to the transitional period between my childhood and my marriage, that time when positive seeds were sown, but that I ran away from those who would cultivate them, and where I sought to block out the world and numb the feelings of brokenness I had been given via drugs and alcohol, and taking a tool that worked.
Rediscovering and taking a confident step in building new habits, utilising new and old in this new setting, ditching the phone. Like the pen and paper, it is symbolic. I am not the phone guy, I am not the technology guy, and I am not the one device super efficient life, slick suit guy. Trying to be something I am not is something I need to confine to the past. I need to make trying to be by living up to an image or what I think people will find acceptable needs to be past tense. My greatest prison is still my mind.
I am tired, if I spend too long writing this, it will be a Tuesday morning reflection. However, it has been a very busy Monday, and I have to admit, I have become a Christmas tree up before December person this year. I would love to have a deep, meaningful reason for this; the reality is I was excited for no particular reason to put the tree up; which became trees. Yep the lounge got a tree and the kitchen dining room also got its own tree with lights that flash in multiple ways, which has made me somewhat more giddy than my age would suggest.
Life happened and rather a lot of it stood up, and although some of it was spent in a far more crowded place than I would like, Monday was a success, even if the gluten free lasagne sheets completely let me down dinner tasted great anyway. If Monday has been a success it comes at the end of what was, on reflection, a successful week.
My daughter had her 21st Birthday party which, while making me feel very old indeed, was a complete success, including four flavours of jelly on the party buffet (the children’s menu) and kids party games, thanks to my friend who just happens to be a professional DJ of fourteen years and children entertainer of even longer. There were some, shall we say, interesting interpretations of the dress to impress suggestion on the invites. The girls of the night smashed it out of the park, the boys, oh dear …. I guess with some I should be glad I couldn’t smell them at twenty paces.
Did I mention, I have debilitating social anxiety, which begs the question, “how did I negotiate a 21st birthday party?” The answer lies in how I cope with my anxiety generally, I avoid facing new situations alone, I always have an escape plan when possible, and I make the situation as familiar as possible. This week I was talking to a fellow traveller on the anxiety road. We talked a lot about how you end up isolated and fearful, sharing the negotiations that happen just to get past the front door. The variable nature, the seeming lack of any need for trigger, but I was able to share how I am able to do things which terrify me, and would, given any chance paralyse me. The first thing I do is reduce uncertainty, my life is dominated by travelling to places I know well. If the place is new I go with someone I trust, my wife being the obvious choice. Even before then I may drive to the place, look at it from outside, if that is not possible google street view and maps, with the sat-nav programmed. If it is a situation that causes severe anxiety then I will have a get out plan. Being know to be less than 100% health at the moment has made that easier, but in the past I have had “alarm activation” call outs, and of course travelled in a separate car so I am not needed for lift duty, if that was possible. I use Premier Inn, a chain where the rooms at every hotel are almost identical; it is all about familiarity and being able to keep the unknown elements to a minimum.
Being able to share my strategies for coping with my anxiety, and we did have many similar elements and feelings, and sharing that I fake it, in that I identify what the behaviour of a confident person would be and copy it. Taken from Tony Robbins, most people cannot tell the difference, and this person was one. They were astounded that I could spend ten minutes debating with myself before getting out the house. And, the fact that I could manage the sheer terror of new situations, in the ways I spoke about, was an extremely helpful revelation. I felt honoured and humbled that this person had chosen to spend what was a not insignificant amount of time with me opening up about their challenges, feelings, emotions and difficulties, the fears, the paralysis of depression and anxiety. This is a real privilege to me, and something that disarms me because I cannot really understand how I engender that trust in someone who at the start of the conversation had only really seen me about. It is also incredibly therapeutic to be able to share my own challenges, my feelings, and alongside compare and share strategies for coping with this debilitating internal struggle and incessant negative dialogue. I could not even lay claim to having an answer, and I still have days where making it out of bed is a massive achievement, and while my strategies can make me appear normal. Appearance is all it is, in reality, I have been in the anxiety management game so long that my life is very well set up in how it minimises source of possible terror by its very nature and structure.
Thinking about how often I have had the opportunity and privilege of talking to people, who are essentially still strangers when we start, about their innermost fears, feelings and challenges actually left me baffled. On the one hand, I have the undeniable fact that my appearance is designed to give me a quiet life, in so far as it discourages random interaction. Parents regularly shoo and usher their fascinated children away as if I were some Gruffalo incarnate. Which is cool, and kids staring in wonder is one of the cutest things there is. If you choose to look a certain way, which I have, then you have to accept the reaction that your appearance creates, and that is exactly why I have chosen it.
Take the time to talk to me, and of course, appearance and persona quickly reveal themselves as nothing more than social camouflage. And, not even particularly good or sophisticated serving only as a basic filter for interaction. If you fall for them then that saves me having to engage with you, if you see through them then it is significantly more likely that you are someone I can engage with and your sentences will not start with “did you see …” with reference to some celebrity or soap based TV program or ” did you hear about …” in relation to some Z-list famous for being famous so-called celebrity, over paid sports person or musically illiterate pop sensation, which is what I am looking for.
I want to listen more than I want to talk, although I have stock, what I call public domain stories I can share to create a feeling of familiarity and comfort, that I rehearsed with a friend many years ago, and have information, which while personal, is nothing that hasn’t been on the internet at some point as so is available to a few million at least, that I can share so you can get to know me a little better. I want to listen because I am interested, I want to know the person I am talking to, the real them, and I want to build friendships, not vague acquaintances. I am very lucky that I have gradually built trusting relationships with a few people. This is because I have stages of friendship. You start furthest away and through actions can move inwards, you can also move out, and it is a very rare individual that can move to the innermost level of trust at any sort of speed. That innermost level is the level at which I can genuinely be hurt by someone. The sort of hurt that causes grief, I have made the mistake of granting admission too soon, so I am, now, even more guarded than I used to be. There are actions, like stopping me committing suicide that will get you in close in a hurry. There are possibly five people in that innermost circle, but that may actually be four.
Despite the fact that I guard my closest level of friendship closely, I am a friendly person and have a friendship network, many of whom have been tremendously supportive through my life journey. Their non-admission to the inner most level is a reflection of my own trust issues, not any quality they do or do not possess. I am terrified of being hurt, and so have always sought to keep the number of people who can really hurt me and cause me emotional harm to a minimum. Which probably sounds odd coming from someone who was abused. Perhaps, being abused by someone who had gained admission to that innermost level is why it is guarded, and perhaps it was they who made sure it was not populated so they could maintain control. I have no idea whether I was guarding, they were, guarding or that it is just a sensible way to be, it is how I am.
The thing is, I want people to know who I am. When you meet me, I want you to assess me, and because I realise that not everyone can like everyone and because I realise that this means I may not be someone’s cup of tea, I want anyone who doesn’t like me to actually dislike the real me. What saddens me about my past is that there are people who dislike, and actually more than that, will hate me, because of the stories told about me. I know my appearance and persona will cause people to dislike me, however,if you are shallow enough to dislike me for my appearance then my life is richer for your absence, and perhaps maybe the planet would be better without you too. I have no space, time, need or desire for people who are judgemental, bigoted and what I call “…ists”.
My experience of people whose self-description ends with “… ist” has not been overwhelmingly positive, from racists, sexists, feminists, to psychologists and scientists, personally and professionally it puts me on red alert. Prefix your “…ist” with fundamentalist and it’s a long way back for you. I will be civil, I may engage with you, we can be on great terms and even a sort of friend (depending on your … ist, of course) with who I share and get on great. However, as a self-identifying …ist, you have set a level limit.
While I am aware that we make sense of the world and people using stereotypes as crude, rapidly deployed frameworks, I fully expect them to be developed and adjust in the light of reality.
On the friendship level it has been a fulfilling and rewarding week, being an ear let alone being able to have a dialogue about coping strategies and ideas, is a huge privilege Talking with friends about being disliked all the way up to hated for who you are, what you actually stand for, and judged on your words, your actions and the consistency of the two; opposed to stories is something important that I had not realised was as significant to me as it actually is.
While I have told my self I do not care what people thing of me, clearly I care a lot about what people think about me in so much as I want them to be thinking and judging the real me and not a story version. Sometimes I really wish I could be like the autistic lad I knew who did not, not care about what people thought of him. He could not comprehend why anyone would think about him, let alone go so far as to have an opinion about him. He was very much his own person, very functional, as well as bright (brains to burn was the phrase), and of course without the prison of expectations and the inner need to control what people thought about him, was very free in his choices through every portion of his life. His jam and Dairylea sandwich was a particularly tasty invention that came from the fact he ate what he wanted, how he wanted, when he wanted it.
My successful week continued creatively. My poem: To Carry On was a highlight for me and I am very happy to even proud of that piece. I have also been able to experiment a little, and while no profession photographer I have enjoyed sharing photographs and am looking forward to learning a little on how to manipulate. This also gives me options to travel outside, which whole being terrifying and tiring, is also very rewarding and great for my mental and physical health. The more I can break out of the prison my anxiety would make for me the better I feel. It was enormous fun to work with paint and create the picture frame, I am considering editing a picture of the final product to remove anything that can be used to identify me or the recipient, so I may just leave that where it is.
I am feeling a desire, or perhaps internal pressure to summarise or conclude this reflection. The summary is that this week I have been able to focus on the silver lining more than the cloud. Slowing down due to the pain and illness has allowed me some opportunities that business would preclude, and removal of the pressure put on me by me to be “productive” in that rigid sense I had constructed as meant I have felt better about reducing measurable outputs and doing other intangible things instead.
I also got my cooking mojo back – I may not want to eat it, but I am enjoying cooking again, although I will leave the innumerable food photos to my istagram as their creative merit is not high, and my dishes while tasty are definitely not art.
Statistics can be an awful task master. My last posting was my last Monday Night reflection. I am wondering, where did the creativity go, and what is my measure of productivity.
Last week I hurt, Monday was a euphoric good news day. The reality was somewhat mixed, while I found out I don’t have cancer, which is good news. The fact is, the cells in the biopsy are pre-cancerous, and that means monitoring for changes, more biopsies and more waiting for results in the future. In addition, the pain that led to two hospital stays came back. Life slows down, I am tired quicker, I need to sleep more, and sleep is more disturbed, and I am slower. Everything takes longer when I hurt, and mentally the sharpness goes. The spring of creativity can become a plod, to a trudge, to nothing. Last week, it became nothing. Prompts lost their attraction, I was feeling that I was relying on prompts far too heavily, old material looked like spent ammunition, not many recycling options, and for new material I wanted to look at different inspirations, expand a horizon or two. I got bogged down, I read, I read my usual mix of relevant and useless material, but ducked things I knew would be really relevant.I spent a lot of time on Facebook. I had no desire to create, no desire to consume, no desire to engage, I didn’t even want to want. I wanted my life back, where at the very least I have some desire to create or produce something.
I felt that my week had been unproductive, that I had accomplished nothing because I had not posted on my blog. I was disappointed that I had created nothing and that I had let myself down. I suppose, luckily, I sat and did a little bit of wallowing in that feeling. I quickly started to realise, that my blog is not a stick, it exists and an outlet and medium for one aspect of my creative self and as a safe place for the Mouse, that part of me that deals with past trauma and experience. My squeeks are my own, and they exist because I made them exist to serve me and my purposes, I was by feeling guilty and beating myself up over non-production in a very bad place and creating the very negative relationship with my blog that I had consciously moved away from not so long ago.
I also realised that not only was I slipping into a negative relationship with my blog, but this was a negative relationship with my creative self. I had literally forgotten that I could create something other than poetry and that, in fact, exploring creativity outside poetry was really exciting. I had made space to write poems, not space to write anything else, read anything else, do anything else. There are things I wanted to do that I had suspended completely. It also became clear that while I had been cultivating a negative relationship with my creativity, I had also developed a negative and unhealthy relationship to productivity. My todo list had gone from a mixture of things I had to do, usually one or two, and things I get to do and things I would like to do (often too numerous to be realistic) and had become a checklist of things I had to get done to feel like I had earned my place in the world that day.
The problem being that I was still writing my list as a mixture of have to do’s and would like to do’s. My list of would like to do’s can be impossibly long and serve only as a reminder of a wish or thought. Even the reinstitution of my ideas pad, quite simply a ring bound A4 pad where I write things down, from usernames, id numbers, booking references to ideas, thoughts, and things I would like to remember. It is ring bound so that I can go back over it and nothing is thrown away until its time is done. I use pages facing up, then when I get to the end turn it over and use the backs going the other way, that somehow makes it easier to use. In the same way having 2 screens reduces distractions because I can have what I am using up on both. For example, I could be writing this on one screen and have some picture research on the other and I can switch as my attention span wanes. I have a tangle to help my fidgeting when I am listening and trying to concentrate. I realised that I had slipped into a one-dimensional productivity mindset. Done and done within a rigid framework, had become the measure of whether that day was good or bad. This is a terrible idea, when anyone is ill their productivity will change, and their ability to do certain tasks, maybe even all tasks, is diminished, combining this with an impossible to-do list is setting myself up for disaster and negativity.
However, this negativity trap was not the only problem, my view of what was productive had become narrow. If it was not my blog or something that increased revenue directly, it had lost value. The problem is, that driving income and revenue is not my goal, my business project that had stalled while being ill is not about generating an income, it is about being positive, spreading positivity, and making people happy. My belief is that by following what is important to me that enough income will follow. I have done this before and while the enterprise was not perhaps the financial success other people wanted to be, the fact that so many lives were changed in such a short time and the impact was so positive that I have am still asked to do it again, is proof enough of concept. Following your core values and seeking to be a positive change is a worthy goal even in business. My losing sight of what productivity in my life means had resulted in a negative view of myself and my role.
In the week of no blog posts, I have been a good friend and supported friends through tough times, something that takes time. I have spent time just being with my wife, letting the conversation wander and the two of us sharing fears, concerns, hopes and dreams. Nothing unusual in that, we have always done it, even when we were dating, however, it is important, and worthwhile acknowledging this is doing as much as putting the bin out. I have done house errands like shopping and getting prescriptions, continued sorting through my things, been to the post office to send items sold, said thank you. I have also cooked, cooked a lot and am even hosting dinner this week. Today, I have painted a picture frame that is being recycled for a 21st birthday present and cooked some more. Looking back without the blinkers of my rigid mindset, I have done a lot. Talking with a friend in need is not a burden on my life, it is an essential component of my life. More than posting a parcel or writing a poem, that half an hour is the difference to them and it is the world to me. When my friend rang me in tears, it was the greatest compliment I could get, that they chose me to be the shoulder they wanted to cry on. Humbling hardly encompasses how it feels to be chosen by someone vulnerable in that way. Two days later I was able to spend an afternoon with them, and stand with them as they struggled with the new situation they faced. Those things may not make a to-do list; they are what life is all about.
My productivity focus was an alien one. I do not like to say, it was a getting things done approach because I am actually a big fan of the GTD approach from David Allen because it frees up both time and headspace for the most important part of life: relationships. It allows you to focus 100% on what you are doing, knowing it is the best thing you could be doing. In the negative sense of getting things done, however, that is exactly what I was doing, seeing life as a checklist to rattle through quickly so I could get onto the next checklist. The slide happened imperceptibly and very nearly locked itself in. Perhaps being sick had made me vulnerable to the change, or maybe, I had simply taken the path of least resistance and conformed to the world’s definition of productivity; and the very antithesis of mindfulness.
As I run out of steam, I am still hurting and I still have things to do, in fact, there are things on my todo list still. Luckily they are small 5 minute or less items, and I have done much more besides what is on the list. Time has gone insanely fast, and I have been slower than I would have liked to be. I feel, sincerely, that I have perhaps dodged a bullet or averted a war in realising so soon that I was becoming so negative and so bound up in values and attitudes that were not my own. That I was conforming to someone else’s reality and standards.
Lonely isolation brings me solace and comfort in the crowded spaces
On my own, I find the peace and quiet of dim contemplation,
Voices speak that are all my own when silence permits,
Every day a quiet conversation in passion persists
My demons polite in torment, pervade my consciousness,
Each gives a gift I dare not resist.