Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Quiet Rebellion

I can remember it as if it where yesterday and not 12 years ago. I am 25 and sat in my bedroom in the house where I grew up. The carpet is a deep forest green and the walls are purple, orange and yellow, a patchwork history of sudden teenage impulses to redecorate with whatever paint was handy in the garage. I am back in my hometown after graduating with a degree in Fine Art from Hull and the inertia and boredom has been creeping in slowly over the past few years. So has the fear that I am somehow missing out. I have a social life, sure. Mainly centred around my job as a bookseller in our local branch of Ottakars. We go out for drinks and curries and bicker over who gets to look after the fiction section. We talk about books and music. I am always home at a decent hour and the rest of my free time is spent studiously revising for more exams having decided to launch myself through another degree, this one in English Literature.

I can see myself very clearly. I am sat in front of an old white laminate dressing table with ornate golden handles. In the second drawer down I have hidden a small pouch of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco, some papers and a pack of menthol filter tips. I am contemplating a cigarette but 1) I don't want one and 2) I have no clue how to roll one. Not for the first time in my life, I realise I have no idea what the fuck I am doing. This is my ten-years-too-late attempt at being a teenage rebel only no one really gives a shit and my brother will only raise a quizzical eyebrow when, four months later, I hand over my still unused stash.

"This tobacco has gone dry" he says, mooching off.

I was about to write that I can think of other occasions where I have made some abortive attempt at behaving outrageously but, in truth, I am short of anecdotes. I have never lost a shoe on a night out. I find one night stands to be unsatisfying- a bit like reading the blurb of a novel without being able to start chapter one. I need acres of time on my own and I am always the first person to leave the party. Being a typical rebel is not my forte. I am usually the one helping people into taxis at the end of the night. If I'm not already in bed, obviously.

The funny thing is, over the last few years something new is occurring. I am now getting the concerned looks and the tuts. Only, not because I'm on Facebook falling over drunkenly in high heels, or rocking up to family gatherings hung over and three hours late. It appears to be because I remain single, childless, unmarried and decidedly not unhinged and frantic by my situation. I lay in bed on Sunday mornings eating chocolate, reading books and thinking (Sunday morning is my thinking time), sometimes I eat cornflakes for dinner and sometimes I spend two hours preparing an elaborate feast for myself. I have actually attempted to make most of the meals on my Pinterest food board. What I haven't done is spend my thirties travelling extensively and devoting my time to humanitarian causes, something the culture has deemed an acceptable alternative to child bearing, as if by selflessly dedicating my time to caring for others I can keep my feminine nurturing responsibilities topped up to an acceptable level and avoid the whispered judgement of selfish. Instead, I have used my time creatively and quietly. That this appears to be an act of non-conformity on a par with running away to join the circus, living in a tent in the woods or eating roadkill seems to suggest that feminism still has some way to go.

Of course there are times when I wish I was happily coupled up and mortgaged to the hilt. Usually when it's time to change the duvet cover or attend another wedding of quaint table settings and sympathetic glances. But mostly I remember that I had that once and it nearly broke my spirit.

Anyway, this life seems to suit me quite well and I am considerably more at ease spending my Saturday nights in than I ever was holding a cigarette.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The places we heal

The first thing that hits you is the wall of green. The change between the English landscape of Shropshire and that of Wales is marked and it is usually just beyond Welshpool that I finally breathe all the way out. There is suddenly more air and more space. The hills and mountains immediately rise to meet you and homesteads of any kind are few and far between.

The first time I visited Machynlleth was in 2009. I had moved back in with my parents only a few short months earlier. Dad's fishing trip to Wales was an annual affair and in recent years my mum had started going with him. They were staying in a little cottage on the river Dulas and, reluctant to leave me on my own after a shattering break up, had convinced me that an airbed on the living room floor of a tiny spider infested cottage was preferable to moping around an empty suburban semi, obsessively checking my phone.

The thing about despair is that it often throws in to sharp relief life's simple joys when you start to recover; the first time you actually taste the food you are eating, the feeling of the sun on your back, the smell of parched grass and that intoxicating sip of wine at the exact moment you want it.
My first visit to Mach was like that. My dad is similar to me in that he can be quiet for long periods of time and seems to draw nourishment from the country's wild places; rivers, seas, forests and woods. He panics in busy crowds and hates excessive noise. His mission during that first holiday was to take his daughter around his favourite hidden spots. The silent glassy pool where the trout jump in the gloaming, the dilapidated barn and its resident owl, occasionally gliding out over the fields, hunting at dusk. The constant musky smell of foxes. There was soul medicine everywhere.

Letting go is not a single act but a constant process of reminding yourself to put down the things that do not belong to you. I have discarded, buried and torched pieces of my past all over that landscape. Sometimes repeatedly.

I have returned every year since and each year has bought me closer to myself and closer to the person I want to be. Each year, in exchange for my offerings, I arrive home with a bag full of truth however inconvenient and cumbersome it might feel at the time. This year I returned feeling freer and more excited about the future than I have in a long time.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

On knowing when not to push

As I type this I have four small pieces of unfinished work waiting to be completed in order for them to be hung as part of an exhibition at the end of this week. The reasons they are unfinished are myriad and typical. Due to some major deadlines looming at work work (as opposed to home work) I won't be able to take any time away from the day job to complete them. Just one of the many joys of trying to run two careers simultaneously.

So the situation asks the following of me: do I pull a few all-nighters and get the work complete or do I bow down to circumstance and concede defeat in this case?

A complicated enough question to be sure but have I mentioned that I am a high functioning, controlling perfectionist?

I feel like I have been here many times before. It's the queasy feeling of being at the bottom of a steep hill and knowing that, before you can relax, there is a hike in front of you. I have this feeling when I wake up on a Monday and realise that alongside the day job, there are three classes to teach, two social engagements and an extra evening to work at the gallery for a preview. It's the feeling of being in a sorry mess entirely of my own making because I have said yes to too many things. And I say yes from the best possible hopeful excited place. A place that wants to cherish my friends, exhibit my work, support other artists and generally just have a lovely time. The thing is, these days there is always a hill and there is always a hike. I don't think it should be like that.

So, how am I supposed to intuitively know when to push and when to let go?

Because to me letting go feels like failing. It feels like flaking out. It feels like sorry and I'm not good enough. It feels like letting someone down. It feels like letting me down.

I think the answer to this might be in how I've phrased the first question- maybe it's not about bowing down to circumstances and conceding defeat. Maybe it's about committing to taking care of your self in spite of everything life throws at you and the stuff you throw at yourself.

What if instead letting go felt like the most glorious white space of nothing? What if it felt like honouring the body and its shouty protests and resting? What if I don't need to complete four new pieces of work because, hang on! I have plenty of work I can hang instead?! It doesn't have to be shiny, new and brilliant all the time.

What if instead it feels like Rach, it's okay because this isn't your only chance.

Because here is the thing: in the past, every time I pushed to achieve something it's because I believed that the opportunity to do so wouldn't come around again. And that maybe it had been a mistake for me to get even this opportunity in the first place so I had better grab it and make it count before they find out.

I believed that I was on some kind of trajectory and that if I paused, even for a second, I would simply drop out of orbit and find myself back to where I was five years ago. On my sofa, two stone heavier, pizza in one hand, wine in the other.

Todays' exercise in rewriting my (skewed, neurotic, scarcity complex addled) belief system is one of the first steps in learning to trust myself. To trust that I have my back and I can rely on my own internal HR department to let me know when I need to ease up and book some holiday. And getting to the weekend with a gigantic caffeine hangover because I pushed myself to finish some paintings is the quickest way to undermine that and prove otherwise.

So I am going to throw a little white space in to my week. Eat something delicious for dinner. Hang out at my desk and see if I can maybe complete one painting whilst watching Harry Potter. Wrap some old work ready to dispatch and have an early night, simply because I'm tired and I feel like it. And I trust myself.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Blackbird singing

Out of the office window I can see the canal boats drift past and the cafĂ© tables begin to fill with people. Not people enjoying post work drinks as it's a bit too early, but coffee drinkers, the retired with their papers and their halves of bitter. The young men who come out of the woodwork when the English weather turns sunny. It's barely 17° but the smell of sweat is lingering and there are pints of lager and any minute now someone will remove an item of clothing.

Because I've had an extended weekend, I have returned to hundreds of emails. I quickly feel anxious and overwhelmed and then I remember my mantra for when the day job fills me with feelings of less than and not enough. I am just a woman doing things on her job description. I have many variations of this mantra, for use in times of stress, when a panic attack begins to prickle at the back of my neck I am just a woman walking across a car park, I am just a woman buying milk, I am just a woman sending an email. I find reducing my circumstances to the most basic of descriptions infinitely soothing.

Upstairs in one of the conference rooms a local singing quartet rehearse. The songs filter through to my office and though I can't quite make out the words I know them anyway:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

I am thinking about the half bottle of yellow, resiny wine left in my fridge. Tonight I will chop vegetables and make stew. After that I might write for a while. I will finish a painting. I will use my voice even though to do so feels fraught with a hundred unseen evils as well as those I feel familiar with; disappointment, failure, judgement. I will do it anyway. I am just a woman writing a blog. I am just a blackbird singing.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Writing it out loud

The last month of 2014 and the first two of 2015 have bought me to my knees.
I am a heart on my sleeve kind of person, melancholy and introspective and, like a lot of people, I always find Januarys and Februarys tough. They are tough.

I don't talk about my experience of anxiety and depression here because I am a control freak. I like to keep things in their little boxes. This blog is for art and joy and looking forwards. But I want to be whole and in order to be whole the bad must be embraced along with the good. And the bad very often moves us forwards and allows us to grow in ways we never would have anticipated and I'm afraid that if I don't talk about this my voice will continue to fade.

So this is a post dedicated to the blip, the bit-of-a-wobble, the feeling-a-bit-down, the black dog and the blues. And here are some things about me and my experiences of late...

I am incredibly sensitive but recently I feel like everyone else got handed armour to see them through life and that, not only did I not get that armour, I am missing a layer of skin as well. I am a bundle of exposed nerve endings. I cry, like, a lot. Over anything. Something on the news, a line in a book, it doesn't take much to set me off. I cry when I am angry, I cry when I am tired. I cry when I am stressed. I cry when I feel vulnerable and unsafe and also when I am joyful and moved. Sometimes it feels like a superpower, to be so in tune with everything around me. Sometimes I would just like to be able to get through an episode of Paul O'Grady's For The Love Of Dogs.

I suffer from anxiety. I think I always have. Over the last few years it has got quite bad. This is because of big, good life shifts. And some other not so nice stuff too. My brain has wired itself a certain way. Actually- I have wired it a certain way, and now I am trying to unwire it. CBT, mindfulness, meditation. I'm chucking everything at it. Some of it is actually sticking.

Sometimes I can convince myself that not only will everyone I love die horribly but that it's happening right this second. I can get to the weekend and have grieved my loved ones several times over. I will have written countless mental eulogies. It's exhausting. I call them panic attacks but really they are more like grief attacks. Terminology aside, it's pretty much the same thing that's happening- cortisol and adrenaline flood my system and then my body struggles to right itself.

The results of this are long weeks when all I want to do is sleep. I can't seem to finish the page of a book. That's usually when I begin to realise that something is very wrong. Not when I am sat in bath crying and hyperventilating but when I lose the ability to read. When I get in from work I put on my pyjamas and get in to bed. I get around 10 hours sleep a night.

My body has lots of strange reactions to the hormones flooding my system. I get a horrible rash on my legs. I have psoriasis behind my left ear. Despite teenage levels of bed rest, put quite simply, I look like hell. I self isolate. Friends email or text me are you okay? I haven't heard from you in a while...

So yeah. January was a lot of fun this year. But some things have helped and continue to help...

I rewrite the internal monologue that berates me for being in this place again simply because it's not the same place. Or rather, it is but the view is slightly different. I feel that each twist into darkness brings with it the possibility of finding out something new and valuable, then my moods begin to drift upwards and the sun shines again only this time I know something deeply important about myself. Some new layer has been revealed. I worry that I romanticise these journeys into the shadow self because I make it sound indulgent because it's not all golden and we don't all have a flowery vocabulary to hang on this experience and God, some people are really struggling out there and don't have access to my Neals' Yard sponsored therapy centre with its aromatherapy diffusers and Buddha cards. Who the fuck am I to talk about anxiety, I don't even know what it's like to have real problems. Sometimes my internal monologue adopts the tone of a right wing Daily Mail reader. All this aside, these days there is a lot less self judgement and more self noticing. A little more kindness and a lot more humour because, frankly, the shit my brain comes up with? It's so absurd it has to be funny.

I take a long look at my eating habits. Sugar, caffeine and alcohol all exacerbate my symptoms and I am quick to abuse them when I'm feeling delicate. I try to be gentle with myself. I notice that the times I reach for the sugar correspond with the times happily coupled up folks would usually be getting a hug. Coming home from work, in bed on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I am replacing physical affection with food. My instinct is to berate myself for this but instead I try talking to myself as I would a friend, Rach, you have been single for years. Of course you want some affection. If chocolate helps, have the fucking chocolate. But maybe get the really good quality dark stuff so you're not sending your blood sugar levels loopy.

I reach out if I can. And if I can't reach I shuffle closer to the people I need to be around until I can eventually tap their arm. My mum. My doctor. Sometimes reaching isn't a grand gesture but a series of tiny movements. Last year I tried anti depressants for the first time having been offered them six times before. I don't know what to say other than that they worked. Very quickly in fact. I remember lying in bed one morning and thinking I might plant a herb garden and then I actually got up and planted a herb garden. I didn't agonise over where to by soil from, how I was going to get it home, whether I would accidentally kill everything, what I would wear to the garden centre etc etc. I had parsley and thyme and rosemary all summer. Taking anti depressants is a very personal choice for people and, for many many reasons, I didn't stay on them too long. I am very high functioning and I say this without any pride at all because I struggle on even when it injures me further to do so. But I do feel that as long as I am getting out of bed and still finding joy I will be okay. And I know that if I need them there is a doctor on hand to walk me through it.

I want to end this long ramble by saying that I am really okay. During the last month I have felt my heart swell a bit with each new day and this weekend I feel good, actually really good. I am reading proper books again. Big ones with weighty themes. I bake cakes, last weekend I even made hot cross buns. I feel lighter than I have in months. Also, I've just seen the trailer for Pitch Perfect 2. So really, things are looking up.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Jam Factory- Oxford

After most of last year was spent either ill or healing I decided that the end of 2014 was going to be spectacular. I had a big exhibition of my work and then threw myself a birthday party in December- something I have not done since the age of 7. As I've probably said before, I'm a classic introvert so the thought of having a party in my honour and inviting lots of people initially caused me to break out in hives. And then I remembered promising that I would try and inch my way out of my comfort zone and that I do actually like my friends and family. Of course I then had to spend a week alone not talking to anyone, listening to Radiohead and reading quietly, by myself. 
One of the amazing things that came out of the show at The Mill was that I got offered a chance to exhibit at The Jam Factory in Oxford, a venue I like enormously for it's wonderful food, homemade cakes, Blood Orange San Pellegrino and diverse exhibition programme. It's up until the 6th of April so if you're in the area pop in! I'm exhibiting with another wonderful local artist, Tina Burnett. I wish I had some images of her work but it seems I was too self obsessed to take any on the day. It's lovely though, I promise.
There's so much I want to tell you all about the last two months, so much about the last year in fact, which has been hard in ways I could never have imagined but also revealing and celebratory and cleansing. I don't feel like a new person but I do feel like a pared down and distilled version of the old me. More potent, more heady. Less watered down communion wine, more garden shed, throat stripping homebrew.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Things change

It has been an uncomfortable year of internal shifts and ragged soul-work. Of staring down horrible thought habits and questioning and processing and wearing myself out. I read somewhere (probably everywhere given the blogs that I read) that when you are moving into a new phase of your life it can feel as uncomfortable as hell. That things feel shit right up to the moment that they get good. That you don't know the reason you feel like this is because your bones are realigning again. A new iteration is coming. Someone is being born. Someone different.

I looked at myself in the mirror this morning and thought I looked different. My face seems to have changed shape. I am working towards an exhibition that I've had booked in for ages, thinking I knew exactly what I would be hanging and what I would be working on. Not so. My work has changed shape too. And it feels right that it has but that hasn't made the process an easy one. I keep questioning myself. Will I have enough finished paintings? Will people like my work? What do I do afterwards? What next? Do I need a proper website? And on and on.

This evening I am trusting that it will all come together just fine. I will make myself a cup of peppermint tea, sit in front of the canvas and do the work.