Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Too Much Tomato Soup, or Cognitive Bias & Curvy Edges

Have you heard of the More Exposure Effect? It's one of our best-loved biases as humans. It's the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them. It explains why you (probably) love Heinz tomato soup, and would actively choose it over another generic supermarket brand. You've probably had more Heinz tomato soup in your life overall then other generic brands, and now you associate Heinz with what canned tomato soup actually is.

So, of course, this got me thinking about relationships. Tenuous allegorical link incoming.

What if you've only had quite a lot of one kind of tomato soup, and you get stuck thinking that's the only kind of soup out there? (I watched the soup nazi episode of Seinfeld recently, that must be where all these soup metaphors are coming from. I'll stop with that now.)

This past year and a half I've had to re-evaluate so hard, with so much effort, what kind of relationship I'd like, or need. I've been a newly single woman, after being in successive relationships basically since the age of 15,  heading towards her mid-30s. Just writing that line makes me feel neurotic. And yet I'm not. This year (well, now 18 months of self-discovery and singular alone-ness) has been some of the most life affirming time I've spent. Of course much of it has been in the company of others, but really, mostly in my own company. And I've lived a lot of life-affirming moments. But usually as part of a couple.

I know that I have an innate desire to be paired up with someone - my own bias, I admit. I like time on my own, and I value my independence fiercely, but there's something in me that needs to be tactile, needs to hear the breathing of another, needs to look into someone's eyes before the lights go out. I'm someone who finds joy in making breakfast for two, who likes to think about what the other would like to do, or see, or watch, who lives for planning unplanned road trips and weekend breaks, who wants to touch, and smell, and taste the other person in their life, living moments with their hands in my hair, and our legs intertwined on the sofa, and cooking soup, or singing, or dancing together. I actually quite like having private jokes, knowing looks and winks shared only between us. I would hate to be one of the "smug marrieds" but I think I'd make a pretty excellent matching jigsaw piece for someone. You know, with the weird curvy edges.

However,  I'm fairly sure that this bias for the familiar, for the neatly sewn-up, for the happily ever after, has caused me to outstay many a welcome in less-than-healthy relationships. Sure, I've learned something from every guy I've been with, and I hope I've taught them things too. But my former need to be paired - like my less-than-reliable cheap bluetooth speaker - has meant that maybe I've missed facing the music. (Another terrible analogy. I can only apologise). What I'm trying to articulate is that I finally feel like I can be alone, and I can be OK with that. It doesn't make me a failure, even as a woman of 34 years old who has many,  many paired-up friends. And although my lovers might come and go, I'm not going to try to "catch" one or hold on to him to meet some kind of former standard, or some societal norm. No, he shall remain out of my road trip plans, and out of my bed, unless his crazy matches my crazy, big time. And right now, I feel more likely to be able to spot a true kindred spirit, by knowing myself better than I might ever have done, at a hundred paces.

And that feels like growth, and it feels as good as making someone soup. But not tomato soup.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Three New Fledgling Poems

They're just tryouts, you understand. Feel free to give me feedback, I can take it. I think.


Sky and Sea meet, 
in a concordance of colour
a string of understanding connecting them.
They know one another's needs and they move together,
finding in one another
a perfect lovers' kind of peace.


I watched her walk into the waves
slowly heading for the horizon
her back was straight, her hair
long and untamed,
her eyes fixed on everything 
and nothing.
She walked until her feet 
were lifted from the earth
and the waves took her
back to the place where she
was born.


Whittle Me Away; just try!
Like driftwood, 
I'll often move with the tide
But I'll always have
My Own Form.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Om Shanti

a sound we make
to make us whole;
a terrifying prospect.
that all of us are merely halves
and shadows of our former selves

we twist this way and that
hold poses strong and fast
breathe deep, look in, not out
and let it go, they say

but only one half of me believes
in the wholeness of the self
without shadows of you.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Harvest Moon + Lunar Eclipse = Songwriting

I woke up this morning from a dream crying, and had to catch my breath upon waking.

I have one or two of these a year. Usually they're anxiety dreams about not having spoken to my mum enough, and I dream something has happened to her, and it makes me pick up the phone immediately. to check on her. They're my brain's way of telling me that I've been too self-absorbed and that I need to connect with the people that matter most to me. Because my mum and I only have one another, I think this is mild only-child-of-a-single-parent woe. 

This dream was different. It was about my ex, and it told me very clearly that the door to our connection was closing, and that my mind and body are re-assessing his influence in my life. I've been inside that process for nearly a year and a half,  more "officially" for a year, but after seeing a photo I hadn't meant to see, making it very clear that he had moved on and is in another relationship,  my brain started doing calculations in the background about what that meant for me. Maybe this weekend's full moon just made sure I'd caught myself up.

The truth is that I've also moved on, and moved very far away from our life together. I've dated others this year, sure, but mostly I've been working on making personal choices I know my older self will look back on and be proud of, after a heartbreaking rupture last spring made me question so many of the choices I had made over the past six years.

Apparently we're all feeling the effects this weekend of a giant harvest moon timed, unusually, with a lunar eclipse.  Our watery bodies are supposedly affected by the push and pull of the moon and this is a time of re-setting the emotional dial.  Here's the forecast for all of us from foreverconscious.com

This Eclipse may stir up some painful moments or some fears, but know that this is all so you can grow and flourish in the direction that you need to.  
While this Eclipse is helping to release the truth, it may also release any angers or frustrations that have been simmering beneath the surface. Emotions will be very high around this Eclipse and it may be difficult to see clearly at first.  
Know that the best way to channel this energy is into something creative. Writing, art and music are all excellent ways to channel any anger, frustration or heightened emotions that appear. 

 So I wrote a song about it (It's pretty terrible, but it'll be good to sing, in a somewhat PJ Harvey sermonising-style). My co-band member even wrote music for it already. Here goes.
Harvest Moon
You got me looking like a fool
Harvest Moon
I wake crying salty tears
Big rushing tidal fears
All alone in a stolid room
Emotion pushing through the gloom
All out of sorts, in my bed
I can't seem to find my head
My soul as heavy as deadened lead
I miss all the things you never said
Oh, Harvest Moon, you got me looking like a fool

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Bad Poetry Club

For a moment,

when I thought I'd lost my bag in a London cafe,
I got that dropped-stomach feeling.

That familiar lurch,
which all of us know.
The panic.

Where did it go? It was just there.

It's the same feeling as when I saw you, in April,
and you told me -
I don't feel the same
I don't see the same future for us.

I've had that feeling many times before,
But never as much
that day
on a Barcelona beach in April.

Where did it go? It was just there.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


On a recent, fleeting trip to the US (to Idaho, no less, a place of which I had zero expectations, and left more than pleasantly surprised), I honoured what has now become a travelling-through-the-US-custom, and bought myself some twizzlers and a copy of New York magazine. During the 50-odd hour roundtrip journey from Barcelona to Boise, I devoured both, along with a book gifted to me by my friend Lo-Sal called Findings, by Kathleen Jamie.

Jamie is first and foremost a poet, who writes about observations in the natural world; in this case the collected essays published are all about Scotland. Her poetic prose is easy to read, loose-fitting, casual, comforting - but no less affecting for it. She said in an interview once that Findings was notoriously difficult to classify - both for her publisher to take it on, and for bookstores to try to decide which section to put it in, but that her readers don’t seem to mind. And I didn’t. It’s like someone pulling a big chunky cable-knit woollen blanket over you and while you’re starting to fall asleep, telling you stories about what they can see from the window. Whilst stroking your hair.

Her style is so natural - of course, for someone who chooses to write about the natural world, this is essential - but her ease with words also makes for comfortable reading.

“Fancy - day after day of summer sunshine, in April. The house grows dusty and neglected because we all spend so much time outdoors. It’s unseasonal, but all weather is unseasonal nowadays. The plum blossom is coming and next door’s old pear tree is a perfect triangle of greenish-white froth. They do this like a conjuring trick, the old trees. They’re brittle and cronish all winter, then blossom issues out of them and fills the tree slowly, like a dancehall filling on a Saturday night.”  Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes, [Jamie, K. Findings: (Penguin, 2005) p.32 ]

Findings is all about looking for things, and what I’ve been looking for is a way to focus my writing, and find the time and dedication needed to finish things. I think that’s why Lo-Sal chose this book to gift to me. He said that my writing reminded him of Jamie's, a huge compliment, but of course my style doesn’t hold a candle to hers, all unbalanced and gawky and newborn as it is. However, immersing myself in someone else’s writing style inevitably gets me thinking about my own, if indeed such a voice exists.

Happily for me, and my fledgling written voice, an article in New York magazine, my other long-haul reading material, introduced me to Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. Cameron is a screenwriter, poet, playwright and general all-round creativity guru whose seminal aforementioned work has helped to “unblock” the creativity of countless artists around the world. (She was also briefly married to Martin Scorsese in the late 70s, a factoid which to this day seems to define the poor woman; not that in our fair, equal society a woman is the sum of whoever she happens to have been married to, but it does seem to captivate her audiences).

It’s billed as a self-help book, which does make me shudder a little, and the full title : The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity may support some of its detractors’ claims, which is namely that there is a little bit too much God in it. Having said all of that, two main ideas have caught my interest: Morning Pages (every morning without fail, upon waking, writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness-flow by hand) and the Artist’s Date: a once-per week time set aside, and guarded fiercely, to do something that gives you inspiration, not necessarily an artistic pursuit per se, but perhaps time in a food market, a library, a bookstore or the cinema, the idea being that it’s a safe space for creative thoughts to come to you with a relaxed brain. 

Both of these ideas, I like. And with the next two months of relative freedom from work constraints rolling out ahead of me, and a close friend’s insistence that I really ought to try and finish some proper fiction, and set myself some solid writing goals (quite right, MF, you’ve always been a super editor), I’m very tempted to skip reading the book, take on these two main tenets as experiments in upping my creative output, and set the timer on myself (t-minus 2.5 months) to see what comes forth.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Beauty in the Details

Since leaving the UK, I am able to find more things beautiful than when I was living here. The distance makes me nostalgic,  and prone to romanticism. I'm still predisposed to expat moaning about the weather, about the hideously disorganised train station at Gatwick, and about the cost of living (the price of a glass of wine in a London pub is nothing short of scandalous), but each time I return I am reminded of the intrinsically strange and wondrous things that make this green, rain-soaked little island such a uniquely wonderful place.

Two things in particular have struck me on this visit.

1. We have an almost unparalleled university system. One I feel proud to have studied in, and one which encourages the nerdy, the geeky, the obsessive, and the introverted; those whose interests may have been their only friends through school and their adolescence. We welcome that obsesssiveness, if not demand it. This made the Americans I was recently touring universities in the Midlands with a little uncomfortable. They have students who they would consider on the "autistic spectrum" if they threw themselves wholeheartedly and unabashedly into one narrow field of study. It's almost unheard of in the USA until doctorate level, and yet we require this stringently of our 18 year olds. If being able to focus an entire university application and a series of up-to-twenty-minute interviews throughout a day waxing lyrical about one's interest in Roman coins or pre-Raphaelite paintings, toxicology or the films of Truffaut means that you're on the autistic spectrum, then I suppose most of Oxford and Cambridge's students must be damaged goods.

This kind of focus and drive is what creates the idea of great British eccentricity we are all so familiar with. And guess who loves the idea the most? You only have to watch how British academics are represented in American film to understand just how enamoured they are of the idea of this fiercely geeky, weird but ultimately brilliant intelligence : Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything? Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game? Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawny in Harry Potter?!

Where else could we have watched a lecture on entertainment in early modern times - entitled Stage, Stake and Scaffold, all about theatre, bear-baiting, and hangings in Elizabethan London?

2. People here are dead funny. There was a chipperness to people in the Midlands, despite the weather and the buildings (at times) being uniquely grey. Actually, I think this is pretty widespread. The British can laugh at themselves, and often do. We admit freely to needing to have a drink to function in large social situations. We know we can't dance, yet we have zero hesitation about yowling discordantly in large groups to karaoke hits. It initially takes more of us to strike up a conversation, but a couple of pints in our veins and we'll chat until the cows come home.

I'm back in Scotland again, having last been here in November. It's a glorious evening to arrive, with a sweet dusky pink sunset kissing the treetops. Every burn, brook and stretch of water glistens in the light, and there's a lot of water in Scotland. A friendly Glaswegian woman waiting for the loo on the train sizes me up in the queue and immediately starts chatting to me about her journey from Bournemouth. It's taken her 9 hours, but she tells me she would happily rather take the train than fly. "You can have your book, and your coffee, and your sandwich, and watch the world go by, and there's none of that..." - she motions brusquely to her feet, making a grimace - "take off your shoes, take off your belt, take out your water rubbish". (The Scots have a deserved reputation for being some of the friendliest and chattiest Britons).

And that is the British idea of pure pleasure, a hot drink, a sandwich, a good book and a journey.

I think that's the meaning of beauty in the details. Details - whether they be found in a subject you love, an eccentric leaning towards something that others might find odd, or or just knowing what little fripperies will make you happy. Generally speaking, we Brits don't need big and showy. A simple well-made cup of tea will draw contented sighs and a sense of inner peace.

It's the little things, isn't it?