Transition time (again)
After nearly twelve years of living in and around Findhorn in North-Eastern Scotland I'm heading down south again, if not back to my roots then at least back to the same general area. In an attempt to make some sense of this latest swerve in my life's path I'm noting down thoughts, insights and observations from along the way. Read and enjoy.
A new career in a new town
So why leave? What was the pull (or push?) that was uprooting me from the wild and beautiful Moray coastline and sending me into an unknown future? As is often the case for me it wasn't a single cause but the combination of lots of small events and impulses that together added up to a clear signal - it was time to leave. Findhorn had been a wonderfully supportive and protective environment to live in and it would be hard to think of a better place to go through Big Changes in but there comes a point where security shades into restrictiveness. Although it would be hard to say goodbye to so many deep and dear friends the time had come to get out into the wider world.
After months spent pounding my computer keyboard and scouring the online work listings I'd found myself a new job, working at Maidstone in north Kent. Not quite the furthest point I could have found in the UK but pretty close. So now all I had to do was find somewhere to live and move all my stuff there. Hmmm. After looking at what it would involve to hire a van and drive it there myself I decided to see what the local removers would charge and was pleasantly surprised with a very affordable quote. And so the plan was set - movers on Monday, myself down to stay at my mothers' on Tuesday, then off to Maidstone to see what there was to see.
My life in a cardboard box (or two)
Having arranged for the movers I was supplied with a quantity of Stout Cardboard Boxes, it being considerably cheaper if I did the packing myself. Having spent a good part of the previous months assessing the aesthetic, emotive, practical and (in a few cases) monetary value of my accumulated baggage I had implemented a severe and at times ruthless auditing of their cost/benefit ratios and had acted accordingly, as a consequence the remaining pile had been visibly decreasing at each change of residence. When I was at college the consensus was that it was a Bad Thing to own more stuff than would fit in a Transit van, by now I had reached the stage of being able to hide it all behind a piano (so long as you didn't look too hard). Within this measure I had found the middle ground - the piano in question was a baby grand - which had a sort of balanced quality that appealed to me.
Even with this reduced payload to pack up it wasn't an easy or quick task. I found I could get a couple of boxes done but would then grind to a halt and agonise over whether something fitted into an available space or if bedlinen should be kept together and not mixed with kitchen items. (It's possible that there was more going on than just an arrangement of goods.) Having gotten rid of so many bits and pieces it was remarkably pleasing to handle the remaining 'Good Stuff', to feel that what remained was (mostly) objects that I was delighted to own, things that worked well, looked good, fitted well (in the broadest sense) and, in many cases, fitted into all three categories. Very satisfying.
There were still some things that I couldn't explain, justify or discard but they formed a very small (and light) group and I was content to give them a bit more time. And so with just one box remaining unsealed (for last-minute changes of plan) and a small pile of essentials that I'd live out of for the next couple of weeks I set out for a farewell drink with friends at my 'local' in the village.
The burly men
The following morning was the day of the movers and at 9:00am sharp they were knocking on the door. Unfortunately (in this respect) the pub night had gone rather well and I had blearily emerged from sleep just thirty minutes earlier. After an abrupt awakening with an icy wash and Industrial Strength tea I found myself giving vague and nebulous direction to three large Scottish men who, luckily, knew exactly what they were doing and in no time at all had whisked my assembled goods into the (pleasingly traditional) removal van. The last minute additions - three mounted pictures and a quantity of select booze, none of them wrapped or boxed - didn't phase them in the slightest and in a flurry of paper, bubblewrap and cardboard they were safely included in the cargo.
My accumulated belongings were far too small to merit a van of their own and so were being transported as a 'part load', shoved into a spare corner of someone else's 'proper' move. To keep them separate they were loaded up into their own, individual crate (see picture) which was itself dwarfed by the vastness of the van's interior. It didn't have my name stencilled on the side which, I thought, would have been a nice touch, but it did amuse me to think of the trappings of my life stacked up against a similarly boxed Ark of the Covenant in some echoing warehouse.
And then they were gone, leaving me with just a pale green receipt with a very faint carbon copied list of the removed items. Some of my instruments had obviously foxed them - apparently I was due a banjo and a mandolin at the other end - but with everything going into the Big Crate I wasn't unduly worried.
With the departure of the Big Van the main thing left to be packed & transported was me. Tuesday found me at Inverness airport, waving goodbye to the wonderful Saille and heading through the x-ray portal into the departure lounge. As I walked through I found myself filled with a sense of lightness & freedom, my (literal) baggage reduced to my little red carry-on case and no return ticket to bring me back to 'home'. Maybe in a larger airport I'd have been tempted to find an exotic location and leave everything behind me but, maybe sadly, maybe luckily, Inverness is not such a global hub and half an hour later I found myself heading for Luton as planned.
After a surreal experience at Luton Parkway station (where the travel plan I was given with my ticket instructed me to catch a train that left a minute before the ticket was issued) it was just a case of enduring the cooperative deep-body massage that comes with using public transport in London, and a couple of hours later I was in Harlow in south Essex, my waystation for the next week or so.
First impressions of Maidstone
With Camp Harlow established it was time to make my first foray into the New World, crossing the natural barrier of the Thames and venturing into the dark lands beyond. My origins as a North London boy had given me a instinctive mistrust of sarf of the rivvah which I imagined as a cross between the South Bronx and Eastern Somalia (but without the charm) but as I sped out of the metropolis I entered the timeless land of suburbia, a little more upmarket and conservative than the Essex equivalent but still resoundingly familiar. From there I passed into proper countryside and soon we were drawing into Maidstone East station.
The station itself wasn't what I was expecting, instead of the the shiny temple of convenience food, caffeinated drink and executive trinkets I'd grown used to in the decadent Home Counties it consisted of a humble pair of platforms bracketing the tracks with a small ticket office bridging between them. Neither shabby or quaint it was dourly functional. As I emerged onto the street I was met with a torrent of abuse as an unshaven man in a call box shouted a stream of obscenities into the handset. Not quite the greeting I was expecting.
I'd arranged to view a selection of flats in the town and was met at the station by the estate agent who was going to drive me around between them. Within minutes I realised that one of the big changes I'd need to get used to was the level of traffic - not so much the number of cars but the way every journey was made up of a number of short bursts between traffic lights, roundabouts and other obstructions and impediments. Things generally kept moving but at a pace dictated by the available space rather than the potential of the vehicles. Mind you, we never got stuck behind any heavy agricultural machinery so I guess there were pluses and minuses on both sides.
The flats themselves were a big disappointment. The airy, spacious apartments promised in the pictures turned out to be small, boxy, anonymous units, packed within pastel blocks that were themselves fractally crammed in together, presumably as close as building regulations would allow. Compounding this was the anonymity of the resulting neighbourhoods, no individual gardens but bland, manicured 'shared spaces' of lawn strips and low-maintenance shrubs, antiseptically clean hallways and staircases with no trace of neighbours or other residents, as impersonal as an airport hotel. High density housing with no human contact. I decided to review my housing plans.
On a brighter note I popped in to my prospective new workplace and introduced myself. All of our interactions up to this point had been by phone or email so it was good to establish that we had passable social skills and personal hygiene standards - things that cannot be taken for granted in the IT field. My new workmates turned out to be friendly and engaging which was very reassuring to confirm, and as a bonus there was a splendid view from the office windows.
Before heading back I wandered around the town centre to get a feel for Maidstone itself. It had a lot of the characteristics of the modern, generic UK town - an upmarket Mall-style area (in this case outdoor rather than enclosed) with pedestrianised streets surrounding it and one-way road traffic outside that. The centre was filled with the usual names and chains but there were some funkier shops towards the fringes and even a local theatre. Nothing startlingly unique but not a carbon copy franchise town either. Not bad for a first impression, we'll see what the future reveals.
Back in Harlow again
It's an odd experience living in Harlow. Although not the town of my birth I lived here between the ages of 9 and 18 so it has a fair collection of formative memories, although they do seem somewhat distant now. During my school years I seemed to lose most of my immediate friends each time I moved to a new institution - from junior to secondary the catchment areas didn't overlap, then at 15 I enrolled in the local technical college rather than staying on for the 6th year - and when I went to university I lost track of virtually all of my hometown peer group. As a consequence I only really associate the town with family, and as the house my mother is now living in isn't the one I grew up in the connection isn't as immediate as it might otherwise have been. In short, when I'm back in Harlow it really feels like a passing visit rather than a real 'return to my roots'.
When I have been here for more than a couple of days it's always been during some sort of transitional time. When I was kicked out of university I came back for a week or so, spending most of the time wandering around the nearby countryside while trying to work out what I was going to do next with my life. Up until then I'd been cruising along in the educational system with each step a (more or less) obvious progression from the one before, there were various decisions to be made along the way but I'd never had to question the general flow. Having left school early and gone to the (primarily vocationally focussed) college I'd missed out on any form of careers advice and by crashing out of university early I'd missed the graduate job market too. Having never had to think about what the end result or direction of my education would be I found myself totally unprepared for making any sort of choice, I had literally no idea of what I wanted to do or even what I might need to do to keep Mr. Wolf at a safe distance.
And so I drifted and waited to see what would happen. Which turned out to not be much of a change after all - I exchanged my student grant for unemployment benefit, my occasional attendance at lectures for signing on, and life continued more or less the same. I still haven't decided if this was a blessing or a curse.
The other time I came back was after John, my father, died. This brought up all sorts of self-examination and existential musings for me and came at what was already an uneven time in my life - my marriage had ended, my working life was collapsing and I was slowly working my way out of a period of deep depression. I remember spending a lot of the time taking long walks through the town park and along the riverside paths, mostly alone, not so much thinking as moving for its own sake while my mind freewheeled and failed to make sense of it all.
And here I am again, finding safe anchorage while my life takes another radical tack. In writing this I've realised that once again I'm being given not just a place to stay but a break from pressure and demands, there's the feeling that I can stay as long as I like while waiting for the right moment for my next step. Quite a blessing! In practice there are other factors that will hurry me along - the new job won't wait forever and I am keen on setting up a new home for myself - but the gut-level feeling that there's no timer running is a wonderful counterbalance to my anxiety and panic over the Big Move.
A step closer to home (Posted 22nd March)
Monday found me heading off to Maidstone again, two flat/house viewings arranged and another couple to organise by phone - the downside of scouring the online listings on a Sunday. The day had begun chilly but very quickly warmed up, the sunshine felt like a blessing on my venture but did mean I ended up carrying my surplus jumper & coat for most of the day. Not a bad trade-off.
My inner conviction that once you crossed the Thames you entered a strange, alien land where different forms and logics apply was confirmed as I searched for my Maidstone train at Victoria station. Not only do the South-East train lines seem to twist & interweave, ending up at (to my eyes) unexpected termini, but at the station itself the departures board was split into two sections rather than just being in time order - very confusing to someone who doesn't know which one will contain their destination. I didn't know the final destination of my train and Maidstone wasn't on the first 'page' of stopping stations so an anxious time was spent trying to spot it as the boards changed and updated. Eventually I spotted it, but before jumping on I confirmed it with a railway person who had the usual (but still impressive) encyclopaedic knowledge of the system.
(This is, I hasten to add, just scratching the surface of the complexities of the rail system. When buying my ticket I was given the option of a totally different route that would cost more as it used a high speed line for part of the journey, and told that if I wanted to return during rush hour I couldn't use the cheap day return ticket that I was planning to buy. (Incidentally on my return journey I was told that there was no such restriction.) Oh, and Maidstone has three stations on two totally separate lines. I'm sure that all of these choices end up providing cheaper options for those that want them but as a newcomer to the system it was a confusing set of questions to have to face with a long, muttering queue behind me at the ticket counter. In the end I went for the cheapest ticket as I was in no great hurry but it was a good example of the flip side of choice, my instinctive reaction was that one of the options being offered was the best one and that if I didn't spot it I would lose out in some way. There seem to be more and more of these elaborate choice situations - mobile contracts, energy suppliers, ISP / landline companies, etc. etc. - and my approach is usually to make a quick decision and then stick to it, I may not get the best possible deal but I save myself an enormous amount of worry & anguish. My uncluttered mental life is worth it!)
Arriving in Maidstone I had time to work my way along the letting agents in person before my first viewing. Strangely nearly all of them were close together in the same street, convenient but hard to explain. Are there ecological niches for shop types? Are we as a society returning to having specific streets or areas for different trades? From Baker Street to Estate Agent Street? Mobile Phone Square? Considering the old adage that property is all about location, location, location it feels like there should be a reason.
The difference in approach by the various agents was surprising. Some got my details into their computer immediately, some took written notes to be input later (this invariably took longer than just entering them while I was there), some handed me a printout of their current vacancies and told me to get in contact if I liked any of them, and one basically ushered me out and said to come back when I had a specific thing I was looking for, without even taking my name. With so many agents (I visited at least six and had talked to another three or four by phone, with similarly varying responses) I was expecting a more standardised approach to have emerged through the process of competition, but I guess that their main focus is on selling houses and for lettings they can let the urgency of the customers drive the process along.
Anyway, he end result of all this was that I had one more viewing for the day, slotted in after my first prearranged one. With my bag bulging with lists and printouts I made my way to the agency who were handling it - without a car I was to be chauffeured there, which was rather nice.
After my disappointment with the small, boxy apartments I'd seen on my first visit I was now focussing more on houses but a couple of flats had been different enough to perk my interest. One of these was my first viewing of the day, a newly built unit that had single flats on the ground and first floors and a split-level apartment taking up the top two floors - this was the place I was considering. The surroundings were somewhat bland & anonymous but the flat itself was delightful, bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom on the lower level with the upper storey consisting of one large living room. Spacious and open but with a cosiness due to the angled walls following the roof line it had a really nice feel, even as just an empty room in neutral tones. The rest of the flat had all the expected mod cons, the rooms were decent sizes and well laid out, it even looked like there was a place to store my bike out by the wheelie bins. And it was completely new, I would be the first tenant. I was definitely tempted.
But I was determined to take my time over this very serious decision and to look at what else was on offer. So straight afterwards I was off to another part of town, to look at another new build apartment. It was nice enough but reminded me of the 'executive flats' I'd seen on my first visit - combined kitchen/dining/living room, small and oddly shaped bedrooms, close to a (from my Northern Scottish perspective) busy and noisy road. On top of which it was more expensive. I said I'd think about it and chose to walk the ten minutes back into the town centre.
On my walk I thought about my situation. I'd seen something I liked, it was within my budget and I had a fair idea of what the other options were likely to be. It was always possible that something amazing would turn up tomorrow but by the same measure I'd seen places I was interested in be snapped up in the short time I'd been looking. What was I holding out for? It was an immediate replaying of the 'anxiety of choice' dilemma, the fear of making the 'wrong' selection without having enough information. And after all it was only a rental tenancy, it's not like I was signing my life away. I steered myself towards the first agent's office.
But it wasn't to be a simple as I'd imagined. My previous tenancies have all been with friends and I hadn't thought forward to things like references. On top of which my work situation - a new job offered but not yet started, prior to that being self-employed and doing my own accounting - didn't fit easily with my new landlord's expectations. Still, after printing off bank statements, getting my new employer to send confirmation that I was starting work with them, photocopying my driving licence and paying the 'administration fee' (this last step really helped the process along) there was cautious optimism that my application would be successful.
It wasn't until I was on the train heading back to London that it started to hit me - with a job and a place to live the immediate practical elements of my Big Move are in place. I'll soon have gone from leaving Findhorn to coming to Maidstone, landing rather than departing. 'Nutted by reality' as we used to say in my younger, more eloquent days. Feeling very alone at this tipping point I arrived into Victoria in the middle of the rush hour and rather than fight my way through the crowds I had a small, solitary celebration meal at one of my favourite restaurants (Wagamama), letting the realisation slowly sink in. It had been quite a day.
Becalmed (Posted 25th March)
The days drift slowly by while I wait for confirmation (or rejection) of my tenancy and I find myself drifting with them, bobbing along aimlessly. It's as if my drive and motivation need something concrete to focus on and without a definite 'project' they go offline until they're required again. It's not as if there's nothing to do - quite apart from finding (if not buying) the various essentials I'll need in a new, unfurnished home I am scandalously behind in my personal correspondence - but I can't find the focus to concentrate on them properly. I'm getting a bit irritated with myself but here too I don't have the energy to get really worked up about it. And with the sunny Springtime weather it's nice to flop out and just let things take care of themselves.
I've been indulging this high inertial lifestyle with healthy doses of passive entertainment,
notably going to the pictures. One of the perks of staying in the rich & indolent Home Counties is
not having to drive 25 miles to the cinema, Harlow's Googolplex is out of the town centre (the old
central movie house I used to frequent is long abandoned) but not out of town - it's a 35 minute
walk but not an unpleasant one. Sadly a week here has been more than long enough to go through
everything I'd consider watching, even with my quality filter set to 'desperate'. The three films
I made it to were:
Battle: Los Angeles - started off well as a soldier's eye view of an alien invasion but soon went off the rails, rather than just saving his platoon the 'hero' ended up saving the city and therefore (from a Hollywood perspective) the world. Would have been interesting if the increasing fantasy level (and stupidity) of the plot had been purely the viewpoint of the hero, retreating from reality as hope faded, but I guess that would have been a bit too much to hope for. The film ended up as a blatant recruiting advert for the US Marine Corps, I wonder how much they contributed to the costs?
Rango - a delightful surprise, an (excellently) computer animated western that was funny, surreal and amazingly inventive. Filled with unexpected allusions and references it made almost no concessions to the idea that a 'cartoon' should be a kid's film (the 30% of the audience who were children were virtually silent throughout) and just did its own thing. The first ten minutes were almost bafflingly weird but set the tone rather than the scene (if you see what I mean) and made perfect sense as the film developed, quite an achievement in a 'popular' release. Lots of fun and highly recommended.
The Lincoln Lawyer - a modern film noir where everything is a bit shady and nobody can be trusted. Very well done, especially the protagonist who really held the whole thing together, although it did slip a bit into unnecessary and underdeveloped plot twists at the end.
There have been a couple of pieces of work that came in through my email - a bug fix for one of my Findhorn clients and a small website amendment - which I have pounced on like a starving man finding a ripe mango. It's funny how my mind is still active (and eager) but needs some sort of external trigger to get going, when it's just my stuff it slips all too easily back into neutral. Normally I'd always have a guitar lying around which I could pick up and play when I had a free moment but all of my instruments are with the movers, it's been a surprise how much I've missed them since they vanished into the Big Crate.
Although I often tease a gentle tune from my acoustic guitar when in an idle moment I really enjoy the catharsis of making a Fearsome Noise with the electric. What I find intriguing is that I can't just wallop the instrument to make a tortured noise, to produce a truly primal wail there needs to be a part of me with enough detachment to think about the mechanics and technique required to 'construct' the sound I'm after. And yet despite this seemingly analytical and impersonal approach I can still use it unleash a cry from my soul. On top of which there's another part of me listening to the resulting mixture of art and artifice. So which of these is 'me'? And who is asking the question? As the years add up I find myself pondering these questions with curiosity rather than angst, exploring the changing shape of myself rather than attempting to find some sort of essential core. Which is itself curious.
Disappointment came during the day when my old (lapsed rather than ancient) landlady emailed me to say she'd only just received a request for a reference. Obviously no great urgency (or efficiently) from the agent. I emailed him and asked how progress was going, he promptly rang back and said he expected things would be sorted early next week. It feels like I'll be moving next week and starting work the Monday after although I'm nervous of building my expectations up before they're hatched.
On my final approach (Posted 30th March)
The word has come - my tenancy application has (finally!) been approved and I'm off to live in Maidstone! After what was starting to feel like a farcical combination of circumstances, miscommunications and insane working practices we've managed to match up my need for a place to live with the landlords' vacant property. Now the only thing left to do is... everything else.
The delay has meant that my removal people can't deliver my belongings until next week so I'll be moving in on Saturday and living out of my suitcase for a while longer. There are a few essentials I'll need to sort out straight away - in particular something to sleep on and a kettle - but I'm sure I'll be able to manage and it will be an interesting process to start off with an empty space and slowly equip it with life's accoutrements.
At the end of last week I was chatting with Saille on the phone and bemoaning that I was stuck in Harlow waiting for things to start moving. Rather than sympathising with my cruel fate she pointed out that I could just take off and have a break, if nothing much was going to happen over the weekend then there was no reason for me to stick around and if something did turn up they'd call me on my moby anyway. This came as a revelation - life could carry on despite my being caught up in Big Stuff! I got on the phone to a close friend and the next day I was sitting in a train heading off for a delightful weekend break.
This sweet little break from routine brought up all sorts of thoughts and questions about how I've behaved in the past. Once an idea has popped up I'm pretty good at being spontaneous and impulsive but it seems like a lot of the time I'm not even consciously aware of the options that are open to me. How do you develop the ability to think new thoughts? I've done my fair share of personal development courses & exercises over the years (from the sublime to the ridiculous, usually both) and I've amassed a useful collection of techniques for 'waking up my mind' but the most reliable method has usually been just talking and sharing with good friends. There are all sorts of ways to 'step back' from yourself and get a more objective overview of where you are and what you're doing but it's often easier to just ask someone else, especially if they know you well enough to put things in context and are close enough to give honest and pertinent feedback without putting the friendship at risk.
I'm a great believer in the Philosophical Wisdom Of Popular Culture, the idea that some stories, films, etc. have a wide appeal because they contain concepts that resonate on a deep level. (Having been exposed to TV for the past week has made it clear that there are obviously other factors at work too, but the general principle holds.) In Voices of a Distant Star, one of my favourite anime films, a couple are separated in time & space and have fewer and fewer opportunities to communicate, causing them to refine their messages closer and closer to their core of meaning. At the end, when everything has been reduced to its essence, the final message is simply I'm here. For me this is one of the most fundamental impulses of life, to know that you are 'seen', appreciated for what you are and for the difference you make in the world. And to be seen clearly and deeply, 'warts & all', the real person underneath all the masks & disguises. In conventional circles this role would be taken by a partner/soulmate but I've come to appreciate having several close friends who can provide a more multi-dimensional view of me, both for the affirmation of my existence and for the insight that 'me' might be more than I think.
Another anime insight comes from Millenium Actress where the central character, looking back on her life and her pursuit of her great love, says Sometimes it is the chase that you really enjoy. This is similar to It's the journey rather than the destination but I like the use of 'chase', it's much more active, engaging and playful than the more passive 'journey'. And it implies a purpose that has an alive, changing target rather than a fixed 'destination'.
Hard times in my new bailiwick (Posted 6th April)
It's been a week since my last post (although it's not come to that yet!) and it's been a very turbulent seven days, lots of ups & downs. There have been times in my life when I've agonised over decisions but found that once I'd made my mind up the 'follow through' has been much easier than I'd anticipated, this time it has been the complete opposite - deciding to leave Findhorn was no trouble, actually doing it has brought a series of tough challenges. For the details, read on...
Saturday was moving day and the first challenge was packing - how come the stuff I'd arrived with wouldn't fit into my luggage? Strange mysteries at work. In the end I was saved by the 'extra capacity' zip on my case, the first time I'd used it. After an early panic when the cab arrived late I made it to the train station on time, bought my ticket, negotiated the cunningly hidden passenger lifts (with two cases I wasn't going to tackle the stairs) and was on my way.
Using public transport with luggage is often illuminating, usually for all the wrong reasons. There always seems to be at least one set of stairs with no escalator or lift, there's rarely a convenient place to put your bags while on a train, the gaps between trains and platforms are often wider than expected, the list goes on, things unnoticed when unladen. This time around I noticed that several of the shops at stations have their tills situated right at the back of the shop, necessitating weaving through narrow aisles while balancing purchases and luggage. Why not a 'quick service' point at the front for harassed travellers? Grrr.
Arriving in Maidstone I dragged my bags across the town centre to the estate agent's office where monies were exchanged and, shortly after, I was driven to my new abode and presented with a set of keys. Finally I was in the new flat! I wandered through the empty rooms - particularly empty as I was the first tenant of the flat - while my imagination furnished & fitted them.
But my imagination wouldn't provide a comfy bed for the night. I bussed my way into the town and acquired an inflatable mattress, along with various other bits & bobs. Amongst these was a month-long bus pass - my new bike (thanks to sister Kay) was still in Harlow and I'd be reliant on public transport for a while. Then it was off to the local monstrostore for food, cleaning agents and various other bits & bobs.
One of the unexpected bonuses about moving to Maidstone was finding that I was living just a few miles from my oldest (in duration, not age) and longest (in time, not length) friend, the very wonderful Giovanna. She came round to be my first visitor although as a host I couldn't even offer a cup of tea, having no kettle, cups or tea. Instead, in response to the total absence of furniture, she drove me to a local secondhand shop where in no time at all I had found and bought a 3-piece suite! Things were coming together swiftly. We set off to find a nice tea room but instead found ourselves having an impromptu country drive, a very welcome introduction to my new manor. After waving her goodbye I returned home, inflated my mattress and prepared for bed, feeling that things were going to be just fine.
Sunday got off to a bad start. In setting up my temporary bed I'd somehow forgotten to get myself a duvet and had to make do with a doubled-over duvet cover. This had been OK when I'd first gotten in (the flat has excellent heating) but I'd woken up cold a couple of times in the night and was tightly curled up as I finally awoke. I also had a tense headache which stayed with me through the day. Stress? It seems likely. Still, it was a sunny day so I set off for a walk to explore the area.
The first stop was my local cemetery. I've always liked the feel of graveyards, especially large ones where you can lose yourself in the rows of silent stones. Sadly this one was a bit too 'alive' for me - lots of people were tending graves, not in itself a bad thing but there were a lot of cars driving around which somehow destroyed the atmosphere. So I continued wandering.
Not far from the cemetery I found myself on the Loose Road, which leads to the village of the same name (apart from the 'Road' part). This will undoubtably be the cause of great amusement - I've already been told that there is, indeed, a Loose Womens' Institute and my path took me past the Loose Bowls Club which made me smile. I was heading in the direction of he intriguingly titled Teasaucer Hill and Hayle Mill (think 60's English actress) but the skies were beginning to darken so instead I decided to work my way homewards. It was a nice surprise to find so many open fields not far from where I lived but irritating to discover that the county Police headquarters cut off easy access to my street, leading to a long diversion through labyrinthine housing estates.
After getting home I made another expedition to Morrisons for more stuff - it's amazing how many odds & ends you need to make a house (or flat) into a home, especially when you have to get them all at once and keep forgetting your lists. Sigh! But it was all coming together, piece by piece.
And then I crashed. It suddenly came home (if you pardon the expression ) that I was alone in an empty house and a friendless town. My few belongings were scattered around and just seemed to emphasise how little difference my presence made. After the ease of finding the furniture with Giovanna it had been (or at least felt like) lots of hard work to gather the other stuff and I was disheartened by how difficult it was to shop for big items without a car. Deliveries always seemed to have some drawbacks, usually not being able to say when they were coming so I'd have to take a whole day off work - not so easy when starting a new job. The prospect of doing so much on my own came down on me like a heavy load and I curled up under my duvet cover (yes, I'd forgotten to buy a duvet again) feeling alone and abandoned, and despondent in that it had been all of my own doing.
Getting into the rhythm (Posted 7th April)
Monday was to be the first day at my new job. I caught the (already very familiar) bus into town, navigated through the stairways & subways of the central traffic nexus and river crossings, climbed Rocky Hill (in reality just an urban road but another great name) and buzzed my way in to the office. Which was up four flights of stairs. All good for the cardiovascular system, especially after my lack of exercise over the past few weeks. My longer term plan is to cycle to and from work which should start to build up my fitness again - as any route will involve a hill at either end.
Work was OK but somehow not very welcoming. I suppose I'd gotten used to the Findhorn way where there would be a circle of names and much chatting & drinking of tea, instead I was led to my desk, given a while to set up the computer the way I wanted it (an essential ritual in techy circles), had a talk through of the first piece of work I was to do, then left to get on with it. It wasn't unfriendly or unpleasant, everyone there was nice to me but they were primarily focussed on their own work. I guess it struck a nerve as I could see this as the way things might pan out for me in general, having to make all the effort to open up communications and forge connections, being the outsider having to 'push' my way into a new social circle. Not a cheering thought.
We'd agreed that I'd do a short first day at work as I'd be getting used to the new systems and procedures which was just as well - my new 3-piece suite was being delivered that afternoon. I arrived home well in time and was all prepared when the entry buzzer sounded, I ran downstairs and suggested that the two delivery men have a look at the various staircases before planning their ascent - my living room is on the top (third) floor with odd, windy stairways leading up to it. They made all sorts of thoughtful noises but said it would be no problem.
Sadly this was merely a triumph of optimism. After many attempts we all agreed that the sofa would not make it up the final staircase and it was taken all the way back down to the truck. Despair! The men themselves were phlegmatic about it, as it wouldn't fit I could either have my money back or return to the shop and see if there was something else I liked. I found this particularly generous as they'd spent so much time & effort trying to get it in and had lost a sale yet accepted it as just part of life, in fact they commiserated with me about not getting the furniture I'd chosen. People can be nice. I arranged to pop in the next day and waved them away.
But the delivery failure had left me feeling low and I sank further as the evening progressed. The thing that really got to me was not having anywhere to just sit - I had no chairs, my bed was just 4" high and only good for lying on and the carpet had obviously been chosen for its durability rather than silky softness. It was surprising how upset I felt about this, I guess it was symbolic of my whole sense of not 'fitting' and of not being able to set up my home & environment in a way that nurtured and comforted me - if I can't arrange to simply sit comfortably then what hope do I have in establishing a new life? I went to bed an even sadder soul than before.
But at least I slept warmly. Yes, I'd finally bought myself a duvet.
Tuesday was a day off work - not the ideal way to start a new career but my bed was being delivered and they could only promise that it would arrive 'after 12'. I awoke early and set off into town to buy even more things (a kitchen bin and a kettle) before making my way to the secondhand shop to see if there was a replacement for my suite. There were a couple of options (we now had a much better idea of what would fit through the doorways) but in the end I decided to just leave the sofa but go with the two matching armchairs. After a brief discussion over the new price everything was agreed and they offered to not only deliver them there and then but to give me a lift home into the bargain. I shall certainly shop there again! A short while later my previously empty living room was resplendent with furniture! A start had been made.
Shortly after that the bed arrived, a much easier delivery as it was flat packed. The assembly instructions were insistent that it was a 2-person job but I, in true male fashion, started on it anyway and managed to get in almost complete. The final stage required a screwdriver which, of course, I didn't have so I set off for town again to pick up some essential tools.
Sitting on the bus, off to buy yet another thing, I realised that virtually everything I'd bought over the past days had been practical or functional and that it might be time to consider something frivolous. Although I'd acquired some very nice stuff there was nothing that wasn't in some way essential to the running of the house, it was all very sensible. One of my motives for moving away from Findhorn and getting a 'proper' job was to have a bit more disposable income so I could be more impulsive and spontaneous with my purchases - not to leap unthinkingly into the consumer society but to loosen the shackles of thriftiness a shade. In the last few weeks in Scotland I'd started buying various funky items on eBay - my excuse was that I had a healthy PayPal balance after selling off lots of stuff - and now that I had a regular salary going into my bank account this might be a good habit to maintain, celebrating myself with nice goodies.
My thoughts coalesced on the idea of a telly. During the Crimble holidays of 2009 I'd borrowed a video projector from my work and had so enjoyed watching films on a big, big screen that I'd decided that this was the way to go. Friends at Findhorn had organised a whip round at my birthday celebration for Andy's video projector fund and I'd added the takings from my 'farewell' concert with Gadje Dilo so a tidy sum had built up. However my new living room has sloping walls on all four sides, leaving no vertical space to mount a screen or to just use the wall itself. Hmmm. During my stay in Harlow I'd been seduced by Vi's new TV and it seemed to me that a telly might be quite acceptable and a much easier option - self contained with no need for extra speakers and paraphernalia for one thing. Just add a DVD player (I had no intention of watching broadcast TV again) and I'd be set up.
So I went out and bought one. Just like that.
Another of my homemaking trials had been the awkwardness of buying bulky things without a car, either the hassle of manhandling large packages on the bus or the problems of being in to receive deliveries. I'd considered renting a car but this would bring it's own pressures, to get all the things I wanted on a set day rather than in my own time. But having bought an embarrassingly large TV set I found the obvious, easy solution - I asked the shop assistant to order me a taxi. He did so then helped me get out to the street, ten minutes later I was back home, unpacking and wiring everything together. Nice to realise that there are easy solutions to a lot of problems, especially if you are willing to ask (or pay) for help.
What a difference a day can make. From my morose despair of the evening before I now found my new nest coming together around me. A very nice bed, comfy reclining armchairs, video entertainment on tap and increasingly well-equipped kitchen & bathroom. At one level it's just stuff but it's stuff that supports me being able to relax and enjoy being in my home, and from this secure base I have the confidence to explore outwards. It will be interesting to see how my view of Maidstone might change as my nest comes together.
Next Monday will be another big 'stuff' day with my Scottish possessions and my new furniture purchases arriving. Looking round the flat I realise that I'm surrounded by new acquisitions and it will be interesting to see how my old stuff fits in with it. It will be four weeks since I packed (nearly) everything away and I wonder how much of my soul-searching has been prompted by living without most of my familiar belongings for so long? How much of my sense of belonging is tied to my belongings? I'd never considered myself particularly attached to my stuff so this is bringing up some interesting questions about my identity. Hmmm.
Leaving from, not coming to (Posted 12th April)
A week had passed at the new Curly Flat and I was starting to settle in to my new nest & rhythms. I'd got to the end of my first (admittedly 4-day) week at work and was finding my feet there, and although the flat was still echoingly sparse (to say the least) I had sorted out the essentials and could keep myself fed, watered, washed & clothed. I was getting a bit fed up with my one suitcaseful of clothes & shoes and my single set of crockery & cutlery (stealthily purloined from Vi's) but it was liveable with while so much else was going on.
The weekend was bright & sunny and I was determined to go out and enjoy it. I'd done a fair bit of travelling & wandering over the past week and was building up a good picture of Maidstone's streets (& bus system) but I was missing the freedom and speed of a bike so I decided to go back to Harlow and pick up the one that Kay had offered me, then call in on Kay & Roger so they could do their Serious Cyclist magic on it. I hopped on my regular No. 82 and was soon queuing up at the ticket office at Maidstone East.
But I could tell that all was not well with my fellow passengers. When my turn at the window came up I discovered that there had been an 'incident' down the line and there would be no trains to London for the foreseeable future. I was in no particular hurry and it was a beautiful day so I sauntered over to Maidstone Barracks station, a 5 minute stroll away. However when I got there I found it was unmanned and it wasn't clear which direction I should travel in - I didn't know if Tonbridge or Strood was nearer to London? But my keen detective skills came to the rescue - I was sharing the platform with several Chelsea supporters who seemed calmly confident so I deduced I'd probably end up at Victoria, a workable destination.
There was half an hour before the train was due so I walked back to Maidstone East to buy my ticket there. Or so I thought - the ticket person said they weren't selling any more tickets. Hmmm. So I walked back to Maidstone Barracks (are you keeping up with this?) and bought the only thing I could, a 'permit to travel' to show that I would buy a ticket at the first opportunity.
The train came but the conductor didn't have a working ticket machine, he said it would be fine to buy one at my destination but that in theory the permit was only valid for 2 hours. This should be no problem, at Tonbridge there was a quick connection and I got off at London Bridge and joined the lengthy queue at the ticket booth. Idly I glanced at my permit and found that the clock hadn't been reset for Summer Time and my two hours was long gone! Eek! But the unflappable ticket seller happily took it and sold me a valid ticket. I was OK for the rest of my journey.
A bus, train and walk later I was back at Vi's inspecting the bike. The tyres were still more or less inflated and the brakes & gears seemed to be working so I hopped on and set off back towards the station. It soon became clear that the bike was a bit small for me but I'd seen several urban cyclists with saddles set high so I decided to go with it and see if Kay & Roger could fix it.
Arriving at London I set off for Kay's place, guided by intuition and vague memories - it had been many years since I'd cycled (or driven) in central London. But not only did I find my way but I found myself really enjoying cycling through town, getting the feel of the bike and slipping back into the wary assertiveness of riding through busy streets. It's very different being on a bike rather than in a car, you are much more vulnerable but it's much easier to communicate with the drivers around you - not so much by shouting or gesticulating but in putting yourself in a position where your intention is clear to other road users. So long as you don't push it most drivers react well and it's interesting how quickly you develop a sense for those who won't (or who are unaware of your existence). I stayed very cautious but never felt in any danger.
Arriving at Kay & Roger's it was like pulling up at an A&E with a poorly patient - they went to work with focussed intensity and in a twinkling the recalcitrant saddle had been freed and adjusted, the tyres inflated to granite hardness, all moving parts oiled (with their second-best oil!) and a new pannier rack bolted on the back. It wasn't like a new bike, it was better than that - a funky collection of bits & bobs that together made a splendid and quirky machine. My sort of bike. With Kay's guidance I rode down to the station and, after a flurry of activity as I had one minute to buy an upgrade to my ticket for the High Speed train, I was on my way back home.
Back home. This was the first time that I'd made a journey from Maidstone and it was odd to think of myself 'going home' to my new town.
And the day wasn't yet over. I planned to investigate a cycling route back from the station (which wasn't far from my work) that would avoid the major roads but by the time the train rolled in it was getting dark and I hadn't got any lights. So instead I made my way cautiously along the (thankfully well-lit & deserted) pavements, arriving home safely but noticing how long it had been since I'd cycled in earnest. And so to bed.
Parklife (Posted 14th April)
Having sorted out my new bike (see 12th April) I took the very next opportunity... to go for a walk. I had my reasons - my final destination was a shop where I planned to buy more Heavy Things so I knew I'd be taxiing home - but I've noticed that this is quite a recurring pattern for me, to get a new Thing but then not start using it for a while. I used to think that this was my clever subconscious at work, getting things that it knew my conscious mind would need later on, but on reflection I suspect that once I've acquired a new toy I'm immediately plagued with fear that I've either bought the 'wrong' thing or don't have the ability to use it 'properly'. I remember as a youngster hassling my parents to get me a shiny guitar and taking it along to my local youth club, only to suffer crushing embarrassment when it became clear to everyone that I had no idea of how to tune it, let alone play it. These things seem to stick deep in the psyche - now I won't even admit to owning something until I've had a chance to work up to some level of proficiency with it.
Writing this, days later, I'm struck but what seems to be a related habit. Having unpacked all of my Scottish belongings and put away 90% of them the remaining 10% linger in the hallways and corners for days on end. As with New Things I take the first step but then fall into a strange state of prevarication, deferral or of having them pass completely from my mind. And then suddenly I'll get back to them and finish things off, often with no discernable cause or trigger. Odd.
For my walk I set off to investigate Moat Park, the largest open space in Maidstone, about 10 or 15 minutes from home. It turned out to be a wonderful stretch of rolling parkland, swathes of lush grass broken up with lots of old, interesting looking trees. Quite empty too, just a few dog walkers with the slingshot tennis ball throwers that they all seem to have nowadays. It was the sort of park I love having access to, a tidily manicured stretch of countryside rather than a more formal set of flowerbeds and elaborate topiary. I foresee many a long, summer's day investigating secluded spots.
The day ended, as has become so often the case, with shopping and a taxi home. Vacuum cleaner, microwave, table lamps (mood lighting for the living room) and a bin for the office. Will it ever stop?
A road by any other name... (Posted 18th April)
I'd been puzzled by my new address from the moment I first saw it written down - I was expecting 'Tennyson' so seeing it spelled with an 'i' was strangely disconcerting, like seeing 'color' when in the USA. I had amused thoughts of yahoos in the Planning Department - "Ere, wos the name of that poet geezer?" - but decided there had probably been some local squire or (more likely) local government mandarin who it was named for.
The truth was more prosaic (in a very literal, if not literary, sense). My little estate is right next to Kent County Police HQ and although the nearby Lynley Close and Wexford Place hadn't brought it home to me Holmes Way and Sherlock House finally clicked. Tennison Way is named for Jane, the lead character in the 'Prime Suspect' TV detective dramas. In a way it's nice to have some sort of connection with the surrounding area rather than a generic housing development name but being named after a TV character... I'm still not sure about that.
The Dreaded Lurgi! (Posted 19th April)
My entries for the past week have been somewhat intermittent and usually referred to things that happened a while beforehand (if you see what I mean). The reason is simple - I've been (and remain) sick.
It started on Tuesday night, my sleep was repeatedly interrupted by coming awake with my nasal passages blocked, gasping for breath, slicked with sweat. By the time my alarm prepared to welcome me to the day I had a low(-ish) level headache to add to my ills and was not a very happy bunny but still I got myself ready and headed off to work, on my bike on the basis that some gentle exercise would help clear my head. And I did feel better once I arrived. The journey back was not quite as enjoyable (it's mostly uphill, although with fairly gentle gradients) but it's only a 20 minute ride and, all in all, probably less stressful than sardining it on the bus.
The following night was similar, with added headache from the outset. Still I dragged myself into work (on the bus this time), partly as I needed to talk with the technical expert and I knew he'd be away on Friday, partly as I was aware of having already taken time off and not wanting to start things off on the wrong foot. I survived the day and the meeting, helped by a strategically nabbed kitchen roll and rapidly filling bin, but as I left I said I'd see them tomorrow "If I'm still alive" and was told by my boss to stay home if I was sick, which I patently was. So I headed home, loaded up with citrus and easy food, and retired to my comfy armchair, big TV and DVDs.
The night consisted of more of the same (interrupted sleep, not TV) and it continued through the next day, and the next, and so on. A rasping cough slowly added itself to the mix, particularly painful while my throat and the back of my mouth & nasal cavity were so sore. A very strange symptom, certainly new to me, was having my tears get more viscous, lining my eyes with a white, waxy substance that quickly hardened and was quite difficult to wash away. Not a nice experience to wake up with your eyelids glued together! Soon my eyes were pink, my eye sockets were pink, my skin was peeling away and I was looking more and more like the victim of some alien death ray.
Reactions to sickness: My apetite shrank to almost nothing but I remembered "Feed a cold, starve
a fever" and as I was feeling hot I decided to just eat when I felt like it, while still drinking
a lot, mostly water. After a few days I wondered if my weakness might be down to lack of food so I
started forcing myself to eat regularly. Apart from finding that digesting the first meal really
made itself felt I didn't notice any great difference.
It was very frustrating to feel that my body was drying up (especially anything involving mucus membranes) but the gallons of water and juice I kept pouring into myself just seemed to go straight through. The only thing that seemed to help was taking a shower or washing my face in hot water, a directly physical approach. I was almost in exasperated conversation with my body, "Look, the water is here, why won't you use it?"
Having not yet registered with a local GP I couldn't face the prospect of negotiating with the NHS or of getting to a hospital (even if I knew where one was) so I stuck with my established system - take it easy and wait for my body to sort itself out. However my hardline approach has softened as the years have piled up, I used to think that if I took a 'remedy' my body would never learn to deal with the problem itself but at this point I reckon that if it hasn't worked it out it never will. Paracetamol can be your friend. I used to be a great believer in Better Living Through Chemistry, strange how the focus changes with the years.
It's Tuesday now and although I'm still well short of 100% I feel like I'm on the mend and plan to head off into work tomorrow. Although probably on the bus.
Before all of this, last Monday I had a double delivery, my stuff from Scotland was finally going to arrive and I was getting some furniture that I'd bought on the weekend. I'd booked the day off work and waited for the Burly Men to arrive.
First in were the Scots. In a jiffy (35 minutes) they'd moved everything up to the larger bedroom (which I'd decided would be my office space), had a quick look around, used the loo and were away. My empty space was filling up rapidly but it was just boxes, I didn't have a sense yet of these being my things, my possessions. Still, there were tasks I could get started out straight away and a short(-ish) while later I had my two office desks set up and was setting the various computer bits on them.
And then it happened - I started to think about the bigger picture. My original plan had been to use the larger bedroom as my office and the smaller one to sleep in, which I'd been doing for almost a week now. But as I mentally moved the larger pieces of furniture around something nagged at the back of my mind and whatever I tried I couldn't get it all to come together harmoniously. Eventually I realised that I needed to swap the rooms around, until I did that it would continue to feel like having shoes on the wrong feet. I came up with several Good & Sensible Reasons for why it would be better this way around but it was fairly clear that this was just rationalisation, the only real reason was that it felt better this way. And I've come to trust my subconscious on things like this.
Having made the decision I had to do the work. Dismantle the computers, take the desks apart, deconstruct the (very heavy!) bed and start to shuffle the components around in the space between all the boxes. Sigh! I'd gotten about halfway through when the second delivery arrived, a bunch of new furniture that I'd bought over the weekend and had cunningly arranged to be delivered on the same day as my McStuff. The items were swiftly brought up and plonked in the few remaining patches of free space. A very nice touch was that the deliverymen put my dining table together for me - you don't get that with an Ikea flat pack!
After what felt like hours of lifting & toting (because it was) things were starting to fall into place. My bed was well sited in the Master Bedroom and resplendent in the reds & oranges of my favourite bedlinen, the office was clear & functional, my kitchen now had a dining table & chairs and most of the rest had been packed away into storage areas. There was a lot more to do - not having any shelving in the living room meant that the books, DVDs and CDs were still in their boxes - but it left the flat looking like an untidy home rather than a storage depot. I crawled into bed with the weariness of good, honest toil but perhaps with the ease of finally feeling At Home again.
A moment of clarity (Posted 20th April)
Tuesday had dawned and I had resigned myself to another day off work as my body's defences continued their brave stand against the viral invasion force. I was still feeling weak & a bit wobbly but it was a bright, sunny day outside and I felt sure that being out in the Healthy Goodness of Nature would be good for me, so after the morning's bout of clearing and redistribution of my bodily secretions I packed a light lunch, fired up my trusty iPod and headed off to Moat Park.
Despite my enfeebledness I thought I'd continue with the exploration of my new manor so instead of planning a route to the park I wandered in its general direction, only resorting to the street atlas when I felt I might be drifting too far askew. My general sense of direction is pretty good and although most of the roads were new to me I soon found myself at one of the park entrances.
This particular gate was at one of the highest points in the park and as I came in I found a swathe of woodland and meadow spread out before me, rich and verdant under the golden sun. The central lake could just be made out through the trees while a thin haze veiled the urban surroundings. Just at this point The Universal by Blur came on in my iPod and I was transported to another world.
Music is so subjective and personal (at least for me) that it's hard to put into words just how this song moved me. A bald reading of the lyrics doesn't begin to scratch the surface and there are so many ways to interpret them - in the past I'd often thought of it as a song about the distopia of modern-day life - but in the spirit of adventure here's what was going through my mind:
'The Universal' is said to be free and here for everyone and as I gazed around I felt it as the wonder, delight & beauty of the world, just there, waiting to be enjoyed. A line about karaoke (really!) says how we like to sing along, though the words are wrong, it became a celebration of the willingness to engage with others, seeking joy rather than perfection. Every paper that you read says tomorrow's your lucky day. Well, here's your lucky day was a reminder that all of this Good Stuff is here, now, and doesn't need to be worked or waited for. Then there's a line that gets repeated and repeated, it really, really, really could happen, which filled me with a sense of positive optimism, so much was possible in this world, more than I could ever imagine. And finally when the days they seem to fall through you, well just let them go, the great release, all of this is possible but it's not compulsory or even necessary, let it go, enjoy the moment and don't worry about anything beyond that. As the song swirled to its orchestral finale I raised my arms and embraced the world, released, refreshed and reminded that it's all good.
I guess you had to be there.
It was a beautiful day to be in the park and as I completed a full circuit of the lake I added the indulgence of a Magnum (a choc-ice, not a large bottle of champagne). Although that great flash of awareness (enlightenment?) slowly faded, especially as my cough started up again, the essence of it remains with me and brings me a smile, even as work, sickness & busyness start to chip away at my serene oneness. It seems to me that a large part of The Human Condition boils down to not being able to remember these transcendant moments, I feel blessed that they are still there for me.
The Easter Gathering (Posted 29th April)
Every Easter the UK Circle Dance network hold the Gathering, a get-together for teachers, musicians and other dancers where we exchange dances, discuss the hot topics of the moment and generally reconnect with our peers. More organised than a party, less formal than a conference. Over the years I'd somehow drifted from being one of the rebels and troublemakers into working with the organisers, to the point of becoming one of the core group in 2010, a role I was continuing in this year. Seduced by the Establishment! Luckily the rest of the team were also freethinkers & radicals and we got on together really well, both socially and as working partners. Despite a few wobbly moments with the Guardian Angels (the national organising committee, the real Establishment) I'd been looking forward to the event for quite a while.
However my Big Transition, followed by my Vile Illness, had disrupted my preparations drastically. I was in two minds about whether to go at all when I heard that another member of the team had dropped out through ill health, just a couple of days before the event. What to do? In the end I decided that I was well enough to make a contribution and I should see if the Healing Powers Of Dance would aid my recovery, so I packed a supply of cough medicine & painkillers along with my dance shoes and set off.
The weekend (the Gathering runs from Friday to Monday) went exceptionally well. We were at a new venue - a boarding school just outside Leicester - but there were no horrible surprises and the staff there were (mostly) helpful and unobtrusive. Several of the participants stepped in to help fill in for our missing organiser and the structure we'd established last year held and supported the event to run smoothly and easily. The sessions ran well, things kept to the timetable and the feedback sheets were overwhelmingly positive.
I had some interesting challenges to face. For a start I felt very unprepared, a situation I really don't like finding myself in and, despite all the Good Reasons, one that tends to push all my inadequacy and self-blame buttons. I'm used to being a 'big presence' at the Gathering, doing lots of teaching & focalising, but this time I only had energy for a much lower profile. I still taught a few dances but generally kept in the background in a much more supporting role. And for many years I've been a very active member of the 'Philosophy Club', a late night discussion group fuelled by copious amounts of red wine, but this year I had to retire to my bed early each night, a sad loss.
Having less energy (and needing to dash out for coughing fits every now & again) made me much more attentive to my responsibilities. I generally work pretty well 'on the fly' and can cope with unexpected twists & turns but this time I found myself spending more time preparing for sessions and making sure I had everything I might need well in advance - both for myself and for whoever was teaching or leading. A little less spontaneous but much easier on the worry muscles. I found myself monopolising the 'DJ' role (despite offers to share the job) and using my systems skills to smooth out the technical problems - primarily dealing with identical iPods, wildly differing MP3 players, barely labelled CDs and an audio file on a USB stick, making sure that the right music played at a good volume when each teacher asked for it. This is the sort of job I love, dealing with all the fiddly stuff so that someone else can concentrate fully on their work. Very satisfying, especially as I was thanked at the end of each session so I could see that my contribution was valued and appreciated, no risk of sinking into invisibility.
In hindsight I did push myself a bit much over the weekend - my cough was back with a vengeance for the next few days and I found myself falling into bed in mid-evening - but it was very rewarding to find how much I was able to achieve in a 'low profile' way and to reconnect with my dance tribe. The team will be back at the same venue next year and I shall endeavour to find a middle way between this years 'quiet' role and my usual brash assertiveness. We'll see.
Taking stock (Posted 5th May)
It's now been a month since I moved to Maidstone and now that the dust is beginning to settle I find myself assessing just where I've gotten to. It's been a strange month - camping in an empty flat while slowly acquiring essentials, the deluge of possessions old & new arriving on the same day, finding my way in a new job and a new town, the forced inactivity of my sickness and the contrast of the tribal socialising at the Gathering with my solitary new home life. But it feels like the chaos of change is gently easing into some sort of order and regularity and I'm managing to look beyond the next day and starting to see a wider perspective emerging.
I don't know if it's just a natural downturn after the stresses of the past month but I'm not looking at my current position with much approval. (And my iPod agrees - as I type the Sex Pistols are telling me that The problem is you!) Although I've managed to set the flat up pretty well I'm finding it hard to finish the process off, my DIY self-confidence shrinks at the prospect of putting up shelves & putting in picture hooks and the mechanics of shopping from Ikea without a car seem hopelessly insurmountable. I have ideas for plants and decorations but can't seem to find a way of getting them done. Sigh!
Work has been a challenge too. I was worried about having drifted out of touch with modern programming but the reality has been completely the opposite - the things I'm being asked to do are so old that I can barely remember them and I'm spending hours ploughing through old manuals and reference books. As a result I'm not being very productive which is professionally unsatisfying and a bit worrying - I'm on a three-month probationary period and don't feel that I'm putting forward a good case for myself. I've spoken with my boss and he's reassured me that they're happy with my work but I remain nervous of what the final judgement will be.
But my main disappointment has been not managing to start on any sort of social contact. I had all sorts of plans - evening classes, dance groups, Quaker meeting, cycling clubs, finding other musicians, getting to know my neighbours - but so far none of it has come to pass, leaving me increasingly isolated in my (increasingly comfortable) hermitage. My external correspondence is blooming and there's not been a day when I haven't been emailing, texting or phoning friends from all over the country but on a local level I can't seem to get myself started.
I'm trying to be kind to myself and remember that it's still early days and that establishing a new social circle takes work and time. But still a nervousness remains, I know how easily I can slip into my own little world and the longer I stay there the scarier the outside world becomes. In some ways writing it down like this is a way of bullying myself into action, laying out the prospect of a lonely, solitary life as an Ominous Warning of the perils of inaction. Cruel to be kind, of course.
Home & away (Posted 2nd June)
It's been over three weeks since my last posting (oh dear - sounds like confession!) and although there's been a lot going on it doesn't feel like much has changed. I think a lot of this is down to my developing a sort of routine and sense of stability in my new home, the adrenaline rush of having so many things to set up & organise has faded but I've not quite gotten into taking the day to day stuff for granted so I can focus on upcoming Special Events. If that makes any sense. Of course there aren't yet many Special Events lined up in my future, which might have something to do with it.
Writing to a friend recently I put this in mythological terms - I have been active in the worlds of Shiva the Destructor (letting go of my old life in Findhorn) and Brahma the Creator (setting up my new home in Kent), now it's time to work with Vishnu the Preserver as I go from these one-off projects to something ongoing and sustainable. There's an obvious manifestation of Change when old things/ideas/aspects of ourself are discarded or new ones are acquired but change has to be a part of any sustainable system, otherwise it remains dependent on outside support to keep it going. There's an urban legend that every atom in a human body is replaced every seven years (I'm still trying to get some sort of scientific verification of this) which (if true) is a good example of the principle - the person is preserved while every component part goes through the cycle of creation and destruction. Sticking with this example it seems even more persuasive on a longer timeline, I can see the preserved 'me' despite the fact that I'm a completely changed person from my younger self. OK, there are some debatable points in there but I think it works for the subject at hand. Moving on...
On second thoughts I have more to say on this. Many years ago I read a couple of books on Greek Gods & Goddesses and how they could be viewed as aspects (archetypes?) of the human psyche (Gods in Everyman/Goddesses in Everywoman by Jean Shinoda Bolen). They're fascinating and illuminating (and highly recommended) but one of the things that stuck in my mind after reading them was a reappraisal of Hestia, goddess of the home and hearth. She'd never made much of an impact in my childhood reading of the Greek myths - she didn't have the superhero aspects that made the other denizens of Olympus so fascinating - but with a more mature eye I could see how her domain represented a large and often overlooked and undervalued part of life. A friend joked that she was 'The Goddess of Household Chores' and this seemed to sum up the nub of it, the work that needs to be done over & over and is never finished but without which everything would collapse into chaos. I've set up little Hestia altars in many of the places that I've lived in and have tried to perform my domestic housekeeping tasks with a sense of veneration for her - interesting to see just how difficult this is to (if you pardon the expression) sustain. Feels like a new Hestia statue will be next up on my shopping list.
There are another couple of objects that I intend to set up inside my front door. One is a Japanese hanging banner showing the Shichifukujin, the 'Seven Lucky Gods' - I've had this hanging at the doorway of all of my recent residences. The other is a beautiful nameplate for 'Curly Flat', the name I used for my flat in Findhorn village. This was handmade for me by a very dear friend when I was contemplating buying the flat there and although my plans changed I've held on to the name, wherever I end up living I'd like it to be 'Curly Flat'. The name itself comes from the writings of Michael Leunig, a wonderful Australian cartoonist, if you get the chance to read The Curly Pyjama Letters do so - it changed my life!
Despite the semblance of routine re-entering my life I have had some breaks from my habitual schedule. A couple of weeks ago I was off cross-country to teach a couple of dance workshops in Malvern and Cardiff, both places that I've taught at before - and well enough to be invited back! Both were day workshops, the scheduling of them back-to-back on the same weekend came from when I was living in Findhorn and combining two events in one trip kept the travelling costs down. Coming on the train from Kent was much easier (and cheaper) and having them on consecutive days made my social time with the organisers a bit rushed, in future I'll plan it differently and give myself more time outside of 'work'. But even with the constrained time together it was good to chat and catch up with old friends.
The workshops themselves went very well. It's been a while since I've taught day-long events and despite my years of experience the wobbles & uncertainties were present in abundance as I set about my preparations. How many dances should I go for? What should be the mix of fast/slow, easy/challenging, etc. etc. Most important of all - what should be the second dance? It's easy to decide on a starting dance, something to bring the group together (and to give me an idea of the level(s) of ability I'll be working with) but the second dance tends to set the tone of the workshop and can have a huge influence on how the participants approach the rest of the day. Too easy and it can drift into a purely social gathering, too difficult and many dancers will switch off and decide it's too much for them, at that point you have their (relatively) open and unbiased attention and if you can lead, coax & chivvy them along you can achieve something special together.
In the end I went for Sitno Malishevsko, a 'medium to fast' dance that starts off fairly simply but has some tricky footwork in there too. The group rose to the challenge and from there we went on to my usual eclectic collection of dances, featuring odd and unusual rhythms, interesting step sequences and, unusually for me, lots of arm movements. Someone once described the content of my workshops as "Andy teaches easy dances with difficult steps" which feels like a fair (and catchy) assessment - by making people learn unfamiliar movements it focusses their attention on how they're moving and (hopefully) encourages them to actually dance, and by using unusual rhythms & a variety of songs they need to really listen to the music and move in relation to it. That's the theory... and it seems to work in practice too! The dancing at both workshops went really well and at the end there was lots of positive and enthusiastic praise from the participants. An excellent way to spend the weekend.
After a long break from dancing (I stepped out of teaching at Findhorn in November) it was wonderful to get back into it again and I'm determined to find more opportunities, both as a teacher and as a simple participant. Leading more workshops would be great (if you'd like to invite me send an email!) but I feel the need to find and join ongoing local (in the broadest sense) groups and plug in to the dance world in my new home, to see what's around and make myself known.