Why speak? Why write?

I’ve suffered a certain amount of frustration with my writing just lately. They’re has been the usual imposter syndrome. Who am I kidding, I’m not a writer, who’s going to read this stuff anyway, what’s the point?

To be honest, I don’t think these blog posts help me to feel any differently. There’s something more than a little disheartening about writing something, putting it out there and having it simply disappear into the ether without any feedback at all.

But then I ask myself the question, why do I need feedback? After all, by my own admission I lack confidence in my writing. Inviting feedback risks leaving myself wide open to almost any kind of criticism. My school teachers did enough damage in that respect.

So it gets me thinking about why we as a species communicate at all? Why do so many of us feel positively driven to communicate? Millennia ago one of our ancestors must have made a sound that began to mean something particular to their group. Quite possibly a babies cry was the first word to be understood, not just by the mother, but to all around her. Might this have been the root of all language. Given that we were so small and helpless at that age did we, out of necessity, quickly learn that this utterance gave us some power and control over other members of our group?

Of course every living thing has some means of communication; chemical or bio-electrical signals. Possibly even non living matter; if we choose to see the laws of physics as a form of communication. But, as far as we know, we are the only species to have developed speech and from that, complex language. Further down the line we discovered ways of communicating without speaking; perhaps beginning by scratching symbols into the earth.

Now, natural selection is not known for wasting time, energy and resource making changes that do not give a species some kind of edge in the survival game. So I’m kind of doubtful that these skills of communication came about, simply as a means of personal entertainment or self reflection; at least initially anyway. There had to have been some form of survival value in passing on information in the ways that we do.

I’m guessing that we quickly learned that these skills of communication weren’t just useful for attracting attention when we needed it. We learned that we could convey our thoughts to other members of our group. We could use language to organise ourselves as a group in order to find food and shelter. So we had the beginnings of cooperative behaviour; something which also gave us a survival edge. Although I accept that cooperation probably developed earlier than verbal skills.

When I was very small, back in the early 1950s, there was a very different attitude to raising children. They were seen mainly as a practical problem. That is, they had to be fed and watered, kept warm and safe, but not seen as needing very much attention beyond that. At least not until later on in their development. The concept of emotional development didn’t seem to be considered as important as the development of intellect or motor skills. The idea that all of these things needed to be considered equally, didn’t seem to be part of the equation.

So what might happen to a developing human if their attempts at communication go unheeded, or are misinterpreted? From a personal perspective I’ve often wondered why I’ve always had a deep sense of isolation; even in a group. The clues to what might have happened for me, or rather what didn’t happen for me, lie in my current situation; which is as a step parent and grandparent. I’ve married into a family environment that is completely different from mine as I remember it. I’ve been witness to how a new person is celebrated even as they enter this life. And that celebration continues right through their early years and beyond. They are encouraged in their endeavours. As far as possible their learning situations are made as joyful as possible. They are held and cuddled if they are distressed. They are never hit. Most importantly they are never left to feel they are alone; unless events contrive to put them in that position. And they’re never left on the naughty step for any length of time.

All of this behaviour is the polar opposite to my own experience as a child. I think back then it would have been seen as mollycoddling. Boys in particular were seen as needing toughening up. While I wasn’t beaten, I knew the slap of an open hand across the back of my thigh. If I cried at all I was threatened with being given something to cry about. Criticism seemed to be the norm for me, from my peers as well as the adults in my life. So it’s little wonder that I ended up quite shut down. I was fearful and therefore avoided, anything that might have made me the centre of attention. To this day it makes me cringe.

But here’s the funny thing. There is a flip side to my desire to go unnoticed. Part of me still craves that positive feedback. There’s a bit of me that is inwardly jumping up and down shouting, “hey, look what I’ve done!” “Please engage with me; tell me what you think”. Of course the key word here is, “positive”. Understandably I’ve grown up being my own worst critic. So I don’t really need it from anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for glowing praise. Just an odd word here and there; something genuinely felt and meant. It goes a long way towards undoing the damage of the past.

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Mr Whippy’s busted flush.

I’d just spent a lovely hour or so with the grandchildren in the park. Kicking or throwing a ball around while their Mum and Grandma chatted on a bench. I think the general psychology here was to tire them out before teatime, but somehow it seemed to me that I was doing most of the running around. While my aim was quite reasonable, there’s seemed to be quite random. I was putting it down to their youthful lack of coordination, and not some plot to get me puffing and blowing like an old boiler.

We all got quite hot and bothered, so headed back to the car park where there was the inevitable ice cream van. It seemed to be Mr Whippies all round, with lots of syrup and sprinkles. These weren’t served up in cones though. They were in plastic cups and almost bigger than a child’s head. Inevitably, it seemed to me, two of the children either couldn’t finish them or decided after a couple of mouthfuls that they didn’t like the disgusting green goo that passed for syrup. So this meant we now had a couple of large, melting pots of ice cream to dispose of.

We looked around for some waste bins; absolutely none in sight. Then someone mentioned that there was one in the public toilets. So grumpa volunteered to get rid of them and, they were all too eagerly thrust into my outstretched hands; dripping profusely. My first obstacle was the toilet door, which had a lever handle. Quite tricky to manoeuvre while balancing a couple of melting ice creams. Once inside I quickly realised that there wasn’t a waste bin in here either. What was I to do? It was going to be even harder to get back out as I would have to find some way of pulling the inward opening door while balancing the ice creams. I wandered over to the one and only toilet, which luckily was unoccupied. I thought, what the hell, and tipped the contents of each beaker down the pan and flushed.

If some young inventor was looking for a new material for manufacturing buoyancy aids, they could do a lot worse than Mr Whippy ice cream. The damn stuff would not go down. I flushed and waited for the cistern to fill half a dozen times, but only succeeded in washing off the green goo and sprinkles. Both blobs of ice cream even retained a vague shape of the plastic cup they’d been served in. So that both of them looked like the floaters left by some poor soul with a dreadful dietary condition. I left them to melt a bit more and busied myself mopping up the trail of drips, that I’d left behind while wandering around in there looking for the nonexistent bin. I also decided to kill a bit more time washing out the plastic cups in the hand basin. Which just happened to have one of those push top taps that cut off automatically after one tenth of a second. What fun! Then there were the sprinkles….. which turned out not to be sprinkles at all, but bits of broken Oreo biscuit. Which were just that little too big to pass through the mesh of the outlet. Given that these were at the opposite end of the colour spectrum from the ice cream; I figured they would be just as startling to the next user as what was in the loo. So a few more pushes on the tap top with one hand and some dexterous manoeuvring of the bits of biscuit with the other, they were eventually persuaded to go down. Job done at the sink, I turned my attention back to the ice cream jobbies in the loo. They were still there, and looked to be in the same state that I’d left them. I pressed the handle just as there was a rattling from the door, which turned out to be the 6 year old grandson who had been dispatched by grandma to make sure grumpa hadn’t collapsed in there. Quite what a small boy was going to do if he found his grumpa collapsed in the gents hadn’t really been thought through. But he was the only other male in the group so he duly stepped up to the bat. I told him I wouldn’t be much longer and turned back to the recalcitrant confectionary, which now seemed to be bracing itself against the porcelain. “One last push”, I said to myself, and immediately thought that a rather unfortunate turn of phrase given the situation.

Feeling defeated, I comforted myself with the thought that it would probably have melted enough in a couple of days and made my way back to the car park. Where I discovered, as if to add insult to injury, the dribbles of ice cream down my trousers.

Olfactory Resonance

I’m not at my best in the morning. My mood can take an hour or so to climb out of the pit it’s in. But this particular morning something happened to give my usual sense of gloom a kick up the backside.

I’d just parked up at my local gym; my morning exercise routine being something else I used to warm up my mental and emotional engine. As soon as I opened the car door I was lifted out of my seat and transported to another place and time. Memories of my childhood came flooding back to me. I was standing on top of a grassy embankment; the grass flattened in a downhill direction by the opened out cardboard boxes that we were using as makeshift toboggans. The sense of fear and exhilaration came back to me as I saw myself sat on my sheet of card and, grabbing the leading edge to pull it upwards, prepared to push myself forward to start my out of control race to the bottom of the slope. Then the adrenaline rush as I began my descent and accelerated.

I can’t remember who was with me. Maybe some friends, or my younger brothers. I do remember that we were joined by a couple of girls though. Something that added a different frisson of excitement. We were all pre-pubescent; probably about ten years old or younger. I remember a different set of feelings beginning to creep into my psyche; gently pushing aside the usual childhood senses I had. I didn’t know what they were; just that they were vaguely not unpleasant. We started to rough and tumble; boys pushing girls, girls pushing boys. We were losing control and falling off our bits of cardboard and then continuing to the bottom of the slope by rolling down. It was then I noticed the eldest girl. She was dressed in a blouse and skirt, and as she rolled down the slope the skirt rode up her thighs, to reveal her navy blue knickers and just peeking out from the hem of these the rosy pink skin of the cheeks of her bottom against the green of the grass. The effect on me was electric. I think it was the first time that I felt anywhere near turned on in such a positive and pure sense. I guess the fact that we were all laughing and happy helped to boost the sense of warmth and joy I felt at that moment. I didn’t understand what I was feeling, but I didn’t feel I had to either. We were all just enjoying our collective sub-erotic reverie.

At least until the older girls came along and shattered the moment. Oh, they didn’t mean any real harm. But their shout of, “oooh! What are you boys doing to those girls!” rounded off with a loud burst of teenage giggles, managed to cut through the innocence of our play like a chainsaw through a venerated Oak tree. I think that, serious minded child that I was, I suddenly felt like the feelings I had were in some way inappropriate.

Anyway dear reader, what was it you may ask, that was powerful enough to whisk me off through time like that. Well, just next to the car park there is a meadow. It usually has livestock grazing on it. But this year the farmer had decided to leave it to produce some winter fodder. A crop that had been cut just a few days before I got out of my car. The weather had been hot and sunny enough to dry the grass and herb mix quite quickly. The perfume from that field was wonderful. I wanted to lie down in it; as I probably would have done as a child. I could almost feel the pricking of the stubble in the skin of my back, the warmth of the sun on my face, the buzz of the insects in the air around me and, enveloping all of these sensations, the scent of freshly cut hay.

That “N” Word

Language is an incredibly powerful thing. Even single words can evoke strong feelings in us. There are words that can make us feel joyful, happy, sad, angry; even disgust and revulsion. However, there is one word that, as a white person, I cannot bring myself to write; let alone utter. It is now, more often than not, referred to as the “N” word.

There is someone, let’s call him Joe, that I’ve known for more than 20 years now, who has recently been subjected to this word. Joe is Black, of African Caribbean descent. So it is highly likely that he is descended from the people who were shipped over there and forced to work as slaves for white people. This period in our history is where the N word originated as a label and derogatory term for Black people.

Joe recently started a new job working in a unit for looked after young people. His charges, through no fault of their own, have some complex psychological issues. Which meant they could be quite challenging at times. They were very skilled at getting under the skin of their carers. In Joe’s case they were occasionally singing a current popular song and using the N word in the lyrics. Now in public Joe was used to occasionally hearing this word. He didn’t like it even when it was used by other black people under the heading of reclaiming the vernacular. So he decided that, as this was a working environment, he would bring it up as an issue with his line manager.

This is the point that everything went pear shaped for him. I think he expected some form of united front from a team of enlightened, educated, socially aware colleagues. Maybe a collective zero tolerance approach coupled with an education programme. Instead he found that the attitude of his line management seemed to be that he should develop a thicker skin. They even set up an informal role play where one of his managers used the N word to his face and then asked him how he was going to handle it. I should make it clear at this point that everyone else in this working environment is white.

What’s sad and bad about this scenario is the lack of recognition that, given that he is the victim in this situation, it’s not his responsibility to do anything about it. Black people have been doing something about it for centuries. Fighting back against white oppression on as many levels as they can. It’s now up to us pink people to begin the process of change within ourselves; to begin to recognise and accept where we might be falling short of the mark.

How many times have I heard someone claim, “I’m not a racist”. A phrase that is almost always followed up with, “but”. Usually uttered by someone who genuinely can’t see the inherent contradiction in that statement.

Even now Joe recognises that there is no malice in the way his managers have attempted to handle the situation. He realises that they are not out and out white supremacists. What they did was crass. Effectively just dismissing it as his problem and dumping it back in his lap.

So Joe now finds himself, having put in a formal grievance, fighting for his job. As he is in his probationary period in the post, they seem to be countering the grievance by questioning his suitability for the role.

From my point of view, I have always taken the position that all of us white folks are racist. It’s just a question of degree. As a child I was introduced to my first black person by an older sibling who had brought him home from college to have dinner with us. I don’t remember batting an eyelid about it. But I do remember the reactions of some of the adults around me. I picked up that they weren’t entirely comfortable around him. I think that somehow that set a seed in me for my own disquiet around some black people. That and a lot of other bits of misinformation picked up later on in life. However I did seem to develop an awareness that this discomfort is not based on anything real; I try to own it and not let it interfere with my own thought processes and behaviour.

I just find it terribly sad that, as white people, we still seem to be stuck in a state of denial about this issue. Maybe it’s a sense of guilt that keeps us from really examining ourselves. But our guilt is of no use at all to someone like Joe. What he needs is for us to recognise and understand his struggle. And then for us to change instead of expecting him to.

The James Dyson Rest Home

A couple of days after my mother’s funeral, I was back at the family home to link up with relatives to help with a little ritual that my Dad wanted to perform. We were all heading up to a local church graveyard where my maternal grandmother was buried. My Dad had decided he wanted to lay a large floral cross on the grave. This was as an alternative to what he had actually planned. It seems that one of my Mother’s wishes, was for her ashes to be scattered on to her Mother’s grave. However, when my Dad asked for permission to do this, he was given a polite refusal. Sadly it was something that the Church didn’t allow.

So, with the flowery tribute duly settled into the boot of my car, we all set off for the churchyard. The whole thing was done with little ceremony and, once the cross was laid in place, my Dad seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to get back home. When we got back most of us settled into the lounge while Dad went off to the kitchen to brew up. It was while he was out of the room that one of my sisters leaned conspiratorially towards me and said, “Of course you know what he did with the ashes don’t you?” “No” I said, “I’ve no idea”. To which she replied, “He sprinkled them in and around the flowers on that cross”.

The look of horror on my face must have been priceless. As my mind started to race over the events of the last hour, my Dad dropping the tribute into the boot, me slamming the lid down, the car rocking as everyone climbed in, the drive there over several speed bumps. I quietly excused myself and slipped out to the Hall cupboard where I knew Mother kept the vacuum cleaner. I was thankful that Mr Dyson had had the foresight to fit his cleaners with quite a long length of mains cable. Opening the boot my fear was confirmed by the sight of a light layer of grey dust in the shape of a cross, gently settled on the floor. I was very grateful for Mr Dyson’s patented twin vortex vacuum action and, the job done, I slipped the cleaner back into the hall cupboard and joined everyone back in the lounge in time for the tea and cakes.

Driving home I reflected on what had happened, and allowed myself a small sense of satisfaction at a job quickly and discreetly executed. Until that is, a cold sense of dread swept over me. I hadn’t emptied the cleaner before I used it! I had a real face in palm of hand moment as I imagined my Mother’s ashes, comfortably settled in with the everyday miniscule detritus of the family home. I pictured an assortment of toenails, body hairs, dead insects and arachnids, cobwebs, skin cells and biscuit crumbs that had become the final resting place of at least some small part of my Mother. My Mother, who had always been quite fastidious about the way she looked and dressed. My Mother, who I watched with no small sense of pride, win a glamorous grandmother competition at a local village fete! Was now sitting at the bottom of a clear plastic goblet amongst all the sordid grime of everyday life.

My mental self flagellation at what I had done didn’t last too long though. You see, Mum had a very dark, sometimes macabre sense of humour. So I eventually comforted myself with the thought that she would have seen the funny side of what had happened; and probably have laughed even harder at my intense discomfort about the whole episode.

Six Billion Gods

Okay folks, hold on to your hats. This is likely going to be a rather bumpy ride through a philosophical minefield.

I’ve been thinking some more about, isolation. Yes, I do have a habit of worrying a topic to death. I’ve been wondering if it might be a state that is inescapable for all of us. I’m not thinking here about physical isolation; that’s something we can do something about. In the sense that we can reach out to each other. We can touch, caress and hold each other. We develop language so that we can share our thinking with each other. However, I’ve begun to wonder if that’s as far as it goes. That there might be some element of ourselves that will be forever alone.

I read somewhere, that a new born babe has no sense of anything being separate from itself. I found that idea a bit hard to take on board initially; at least until I’d had a chance to think it through. If one assumes that consciousness begins to develop fairly early on in the womb; then for quite some time there might be no sense of anything other than self. Everything within the parameters of that space will be accepted simply as the limit of one’s self, and therefore the limit of the universe. Then for a time after birth, this state of mind may persist. A state of mind that is omnipotent in the sense that everything from the Mother, the bed sheets and even the light fitting are accepted as not being separate entities or objects.

For a short while this developing mind might have a sense of being God like; at least until it begins to learn the concept of separateness. It’s been suggested that some male infants actually manage to retain this God like sense and carry it into adulthood; but I digress.

Apparently, the human brain begins to develop within three weeks of conception. By the time a child is two years old its brain is already 80 percent grown. The adult brain contains some 86 billion neurons. With the number of connections these neurons can make with each other, it’s said, greater than the number of atoms in the universe. I’ve no idea who counted the atoms.

I’m kind of wondering when, in this process of growing, consciousness might kick in. When might we become conscious of consciousness. Is it something that happens suddenly when enough neurons have developed; and how many would that take? Or is it more of a gradual awakening; a much more gentle process a bit like waking from a very deep sleep?

In some fields of research into artificial intelligence. It’s thought that AI could not be achieved without some form of body. That is a body that possesses a sensory system that can interact and communicate with its environment. If this is the case, then I wonder if a parallel can be drawn with the developing human mind in its early stages of growth? Might it be that consciousness is developed in stages as the various sensory mechanisms begin to make their connections with the brain? What does the embryonic mind make of the first Photons picked up from the first light sensitive cells of the human eye? The first vibrations from the ear, or the first sensations of touch?

What might be the first state that could possibly be labelled as an emotion be? How does the growing mind make sense of the trickle and then, as it continues to grow, the flood of information that it has to deal with? While we could probably rule out telepathy; might the embryonic mind be hard wired via the umbilical cord to the mental processes of the mother. If this is the case, does the foetus share the dreams of it’s mother. Aside from DNA, might the sharing of data in this way contribute to the developing personality.

I feel in some danger here, of tying my own mind in knots. But the whole field of human intelligence fascinates me. That we are gifted with the capacity to create and explore an entire universe within our own heads; as many as we wish. I find it a little sad, and yes more than a little scary that this is a playground that we can never truly share with other people. We attempt it yes, via art, music, writing, but we can never invite someone in to play in the same space. This is where I believe we are forever alone. We are not a hive mind where we can enter each other’s heads and become each other’s thoughts.

Maybe one day our species may be able to overcome this fundamental sense of isolation. The technology may be developed, to enable us to enter each other’s personal mental universe. The question then will be, do we choose to do so; or will the prospect of this be even more frightening than the sense of being alone in our own private space.

Early memories.

I’ve been doing a lot of work on early memories just recently. Quite literally just trying to remember as far back as I can. I’ve always been amazed at how some people can do this. They seem to be able to recall all sorts of events and experiences. Even, in some cases, sensations, like smells and tastes. They also seem to be able to go quite a long way back. It’s not uncommon to come across someone who can remember being held at their mother’s breast, and recall the sensation of being comforted. For me though, I struggle to get back any earlier than about five or six years of age. I seem to have two fairly strong recollections; one of sitting on the floor playing with a wind up Penguin, which just waddled along when set in motion. The other memory seems to be rather more traumatic. I’m in the lounge of my grandparents house playing a game. I seem to be wearing the cosy off the teapot on my head, pulled down over my eyes. I think I’m playing at being a ghost; obviously a blind ghost as I can’t see where I’m going. I’m stumbling around the room with my arms outstretched and making ghostly, Whoo! noises. My progress is arrested, and the game ended, when I trip over the fender in front of the open fire and plunge my hands into the coals. However, at the same moment I feel myself being snatched back out of danger by an adult who must have seen what was happening and was quick enough off the mark to prevent any lasting harm. To this day this memory, if that’s what it is, is still very clear; apart from the identity of my rescuer. The other things that make me question the validity of the memory, are the facts that I have no visible scarring, and that no one else has any recollection of the event at all.

These are the only memories I have that seem to have fairly clear visual imagery. (and yes, I do realise that I just stated that I had my eyes covered in one example, but strangely, I do have some visual images in that memory) Anything else I might try to recall from that period, seems to consist of things sensed or vaguely felt. One of the strongest sensations I seem to consistently come up against, when exploring these early years, is isolation. Since I don’t seem to have any facts at my disposal, I’ve begun to speculate as to how I might have developed this sensation, that I was somehow alone, at such a young age.

In particular, I’ve begun thinking about the attitudes to child rearing in the post Second World War years. I’m guessing there weren’t many text books around at that time. So mothers tended to pick up their learning from their own mothers and grandmothers. Hand me down information passed on from generation to generation. A lot of it was good tried and tested stuff I’m sure. A fair bit of it though, was probably based on folklore and social mythology. One bit of information that I picked up in later childhood though, was the idea that one shouldn’t automatically pick up a crying baby. I used to hear the words, “oh leave him/her be, they’ll cry themselves to sleep”. Or even, “you’ll spoil that child if you pick it up every time it cries”.

Now, my own mother was not a cruel woman. But I think she had become rather hardened to life. Her own childhood was far from ideal and her first marriage was pretty dysfunctional. This coupled with the fact that she already had five children by the time I came along, may have made her rather tired of the whole business of child rearing. So I don’t remember her being motherly or affectionate. I don’t remember being held or cuddled. I think that children were seen as more of a practical issue than an emotional one. We were fed, watered and clothed and occasionally entertained, but that was it. That particular generation didn’t see that the needs of a child might go beyond simple practicalities.

My own sense is that at some point when I was very small, I must have been in some distress and, for whatever reason, no one came to see what the problem might be. This went on for long enough and possibly often enough, that I simply ended up believing that I was on my own. Now, the upside of this was that I learned to be very self reliant. I learned to amuse myself, to think through things, to use my imagination. The downside was, that I somehow became disconnected. That is, I didn’t see myself as part of any group. I remained an outsider on the edge looking in, not just mentally and emotionally but more often than not physically too, as even in the classroom I positioned myself down the side and towards the back. I hated being the centre of attention. I had real anxiety if, for example, a teacher singled me out for any reason. Even in my adult life I would studiously avoid any situation that might place me front and centre.

Now being on the periphery of things also had other benefits. As from this position I could take in a lot more detail from whatever was going on at the centre of any action. I became a bit of a people watcher; studying the dynamics of a group or even a crowd. Depending on the intensity of whatever was happening, I could drift around the edge and barely register with people. Curiously this skill I developed, has occasionally placed me in the centre of a group activity, as there have been times in my life Where I’ve been required to lead or supervise a group. One can imagine my discomfort in such situations.

Working in this way, starting with an early memory and then scanning forward on the timeline of my life, seems to be proving pretty fruitful. I’m gaining more insights into the things that have shaped my personality over time and, to some extent, gaining clues as to how I might benefit from these insights in present time and the future.